EL NORTE: THE EPIC AND FORGOTTEN STORY OF HISPANIC NORTH AMERICA
By Carrie Gibson
Atlantic Monthly Press, $30, 560 pages
History always risks being reduced to cliches. The great U.S. sweep westward is encapsulated in Horace Greeley’s oft-quoted line: “Go West, young man.” Similarly, Mexico’s brutal, backward road to modernity was summed up in a throwaway line by it’s longest-running dictator, Porfirio Diaz: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.”
If, through some quirky form of reincarnation, the two men came back in the late 20th century with their nationalities reversed, Greeley’s advice to young Mexicans would almost certainly have been, “Go north, young man,” while Don Porfirio, viewing the situation as a gringo, might well have lamented, “Poor America, so close to Mexico, so far from God.” But there’s more to history than one-liners, and it is precisely the shallow, caricatured assumptions and biases held on both sides of the border that stand in the way of a deeper understanding of the current demographic crisis.
In “El Norte,” Carrie Gibson, a young American historian with a Cambridge doctorate and experience as a journalist with the Guardian, Britain’s leading left-wing newspaper, has produced a diligent, informative and highly readable chronicle of, to quote her subtitle, “The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America.” That’s all to the good. Less so is her emotional skew. A single paragraph illustrates her confusion. Carrie Gibson’s maternal grandparents were Italian immigrants and “[t]he pressure to ‘Americanize’ was great in the 1950s.” Her grandmother, “who never lost her heavy Italian accent, felt it necessary to raise my mother in English. She died before I could learn any of her Veneto dialecto.”
What bothers her, she writes, is “why had I — and other Italian-Americans — been able to transcend [being isolated with a separate identity] but not those with Hispanic names? There are plenty of Hispanic Americans who have a much deeper past in the United States than I do: so why are they still being treated as strangers in their own country?”
Well, for one thing, many have grandparents — and parents — who haven’t “felt it necessary” to raise their youngsters in English, encouraged not to do so by a highly organized Hispanic grievance lobby that wants to keep Mexican Americans and other Latinos as an unassimmilated power base for themselves. At the same time, a vast, costly tangle of entitlement programs now offers new arrivals a variety of freebies unrelated to their willingness to work, diluting the admirable work ethic of Mexican Americans and native-born Latinos.
Then there’s the vast historical gulf between the colonial origins of what would become the United States and what would become Mexico. Spain’s New World Empire was based, as one conquistador candidly admitted, on the lust for gold and the desire to win souls for Catholicism. Even at its height, with a scattering of opulent cities and rich monasteries and convents, Mexico and its southern neighbors consisted of a mass population of “native” Indians exploited by a small minority of Spanish officials and “Creole” locals of European blood.
While the mix was complicated over years by the importation of African slaves and a growing Mestizo (mixed) population, even today the wealthy Mexican elite tends to be “white” while the poor urban and rural masses tend to be “Indian.” The same applies to most former Spanish colonies in Central and South America. Four notable exceptions are Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica, where the relatively sparse, scattered native Indian populations and massive infusions of European immigrants — in the case of Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, many of them Italians like the author’s grandparents — made for a less backward, less repressed majority population.
Most other countries in formerly Spanish America are still suffering from years of negligent colonial rule that established conditions of mass slavery — later serfdom — for the native population. The situation actually worsened when the Spaniards were driven out by a Creole elite bent on maintaining its dominance over the Indian masses without having to answer to the Spanish crown. The same thing could have happened to us if, God forbid, all 13 of the original colonies had been governed by a thin layer of wealthy landowners — and their white hired help — lording it over a “proletariat” of African slaves. Fortunately, the only U.S. region approaching this condition was the Deep South, the poorest, least developed part of our early republic.
Allowing for her personal bias, Carrie Gibson tells her story admirably. If her interpretation and analysis are sometimes questionable, she has done a great job of collecting the facts.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.