September brings Hispanic Heritage Month, a commemoration that we would think has fulfilled its purpose after all these years but is still a necessary reminder that 62 million people in this country owe their existence to Spain’s colonial ambitions and the imperial expansion of the United States. It’s one thing to dress up in big hats and fancy dresses and perform Mexican dances in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. I won’t argue against charro costumes and dances because they have a role to play. But Hispanic Heritage Month is nothing if not about history. so it’s another thing when you peel back the layers of history surrounding it. To understand Hispanic Heritage Month, to elevate it above the level of tacos, enchiladas and the Mexican Hat dance, we can look at the Critical Race Theory controversy. Let’s be clear, the terms here are wrong. No need to invent a fancy college name like Critical Race Theory. Just realize that the study of a uniquely American discipline, Critical Race Theory, created here in this country, is in reality nothing more than the study of American History, seen with a sharp lens focused on our contradictions and hypocrisies. Yes, I realize that we should not feel guilty about our hypocrisies, that we should release them and instead emphasize the positive, that we are a great and good country. I have done that and will continue to do it. But we must also tell the complete story. We must admit that sometimes we fail to measure up to our high ideals. If we can do that, if we can tell the truth about ourselves, we will return to our authentic self as a nation.
The study of American History has a direct bearing on Hispanic Heritage Month. Remember, it’s all about how Hispanics got here in the first place and how the US largely created that situation. First, we have to understand that we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month in honor of a revolution. A Mexican parish priest in the village of Dolores, Padre Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Creole (Spaniard born in Mexico), who had been denied promotion to the bishopric because the Church considered him inferior to gachupines (Spaniards born in Spain), led the revolution of 1810. He prematurely launched it on the night of Sept. 15-16 because he had been warned by a fierce revolutionary woman, Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez, known as la Corregidora, or woman magistrate, that the Spanish army was coming to arrest him because of his radical views. This prompted him to shout el Grito de Dolores, “the Cry of Pain,” and rally his followers, mainly Indian peasants and mestizos (people of both Indian and Spanish blood). That initial revolution lasted 11 years but Mexico is still birthing her revolution, still searching for equality for her predominately Indian and mestizo population, still screaming her cry of pain like a mother in childbirth.
Second, in terms of American History, we must realize that Hidalgo’s 1810 revolution was fueled by reading subversive tracts from northern revolutionaries, such as Thomas Paine’s 1791 Rights of Man, which argued that revolution and the overthrow of repressive government is justified when the ruling power no longer protects the rights of citizens. Hidalgo was familiar with other radical writers, people like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, icons of American independence. But Hidalgo did not see the dark shadow cast by the Colossus of the North, the republic that would not honor its own revolutionary heritage and lofty declaration that “all men are created equal.” The U.S. would instead descend into imperialism, invading Mexico in 1846-1848 and at gunpoint stealing half of Mexico’s territory. Yes, it was a war of aggression and conquest, and the U.S. will one day face a reckoning for it. But maybe that reckoning has already come, because that’s what created 50 million restless Mexican Americans.
Let us not deceive ourselves. Like the African Americans, Mexican Americans (Chicanos) have not yet gained full rights as American citizens. Furthermore, as a result of US expansion, there are endless streams of desperate migrants seeking refuge from the poverty and lawlessness of Latin American countries, a situation for which we bear responsibility because in our exercise of hegemony we have deliberately fostered dictatorships and repression in those subordinate countries.. And that’s not the end of Hispanic Heritage Month. In another war of aggression and conquest, the US administered the coup de grace to the tottering Spanish empire. As a result of this war, the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. directly acquired millions of Puerto Ricans, and by indirect domination, Cubans and other Caribbean peoples. On the other side of the world the US gained the Filipinos and Chamorros (people of Guam). By right of hegemony, we gained de facto control of Central and South America, whose peoples are coming now, even more “Hispanics” to make the U.S. the second largest Hispanic country in the world.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS. He teaches U.S. Southwest Culture and U.S. Military History.