Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16, is upon us. On the night of Sept. 15, 1810, the Catholic priest, Padre Miguel Hidalgo, who was inspired by subversive documents like the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, and the U.S. Constitution, rang the church bells in the town of Dolores (which means pains or sorrows in Spanish) and declared freedom for Mexico.
This became known as “El Grito de Dolores,” literally the Cry of Pains. The next day Padre Hidalgo led his Indian congregation in a war marked by massacres and atrocities as the anger of the oppressed Indian peasants swept the Spaniards aside. It was nothing like the American Revolution, which was essentially a civilized war between roughly equal armies. The 1810 War of Independence in Mexico was more like a slave uprising, with the slaves bent on vengeance. It mostly ended when the Padre was captured and beheaded. Mexico’s birth was indeed “a cry of pain.”
Why bring this up? We must heed the message embodied in the tragedy of our neighbor to the south. We are inextricably bound to Mexico, even if this awareness lies dormant in the minds of most Americans. We are tied to Mexico because in 1846-1848 we ripped away half of Mexico’s national territory and made it part of the United States. When you do that to your neighbor you incur a debt, which may be an unconscious thing, but nonetheless is a moral and psychic reality. This wound somehow keeps hurting, making its presence known in a 100 ways in the national consciousness of the winner and the loser.
The so-called crisis on the border, which is a type of payback, commands our attention now. But it is only the latest manifestation of the pain. We may discount what happened so long ago. But it doesn’t matter how long a time has elapsed since the trauma occurred. In this country, we are preoccupied culturally with present time and the idea of progress, which we interpret as a good future for ourselves. We don’t think about the past. This leads to an affliction called “historical amnesia.” This means that we don’t remember what happened in our history. When I was teaching U.S. military history at the university, I would ask questions. When did the Civil War start? What brought it about? Who was the enemy in WWI? Who were our enemies in WWII? Who were our allies? Very few students knew the answers. But historical amnesia doesn’t make history disappear. And history has long-lived consequences.
History’s lessons can be tough. Since the captain from Castile, Hernan Cortes, led the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1519-1521, the Mexican Republic certainly has had more than its share of tough lessons. The tragedy goes back to the beginning of European domination of native peoples. The Spaniards ruled New Spain, as they called Mexico, for 300 years. They imposed an iron-clad racial caste system on the country, with Iberian-born Spaniards at the top of the heap, below them the Creoles, as they called Spaniards born in the New World, and at the bottom of the pile the mixed race people, the mestizos, and further down Indians and Africans. This racist system endures in Mexico, indeed throughout all of Latin America.
It’s hard for us to understand how Latin countries can perpetuate this system because this kind of stagnation is foreign to us. So we ignore it. But we do that at our peril. The tragedy is that for those at the bottom it results in the grossest kind of inequality, poverty, hopelessness, and a deep and bitter rage.
That rage has exploded and will continue to explode in bloody wars that affect us. Latin America is simply too close for us to escape the chaos and people will seek refuge from the violence in our country. That is the lesson for us. We cannot stagnate and let inequality and a rigid class structure of “haves” and “have-nots” develop in this country. We cannot let a permanent underclass, which includes lower-class whites, develop. We cannot let racism against Mexicans, African Americans and other people of color gain a deeper foothold. But that is what is happening now.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, a lecturer in U.S. Southwest history, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.