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How the United States Became a Part of Latin America

The drive down Interstate 19 in Arizona from Tucson to Nogales is everything a passenger might expect from a trip through the desert. It is a flat, dusty affair. Craggy mountains seduce from a distance, while scrubby bush blurs past. As the road nears the small city, the flatness gives way to a gentle undulation. Houses appear, dotting one steep hillside in bright pinks, blues, and oranges. Then, when the road rounds a corner, something else comes into view—the sudden shock of it is like seeing a snake in the bushes. It is long and copper-colored, slithering along the hills. It is the United States-Mexico security fence, visible from miles away.

As the presidential election campaign of 2016 made clear, a section of the US public felt this barrier was no longer sufficient. There are in fact two cities called Nogales, one on each side of the border, separated by a fence consisting of giant poles. These allow families to see each other—though the addition of mesh panels along parts of the fence now stop them from reaching through—making it feel like a large outdoor prison. Nogales, Mexico, like many other places along the frontera, has seen the arrival of drug gang–related violence and the departure of tourists, giving it an air of quiet resignation. Even the colorful Mexican tiles and crafts sold in the shops near the border crossing do not banish the gray atmosphere.

For someone standing at the fence, it is difficult to imagine what Nogales was like before the 1880s, when the city was a celebrated connection point between the Sonora Railway and the Arizona and New Mexico Railway, linking the two nations. In some ways Nogales was a victim of its own success. By the turn of the 20th century, there was so much movement back and forth that the town was divided by a 60-foot cleared strip of land which permitted authorities on both sides to better monitor the comings and goings of residents and visitors alike. Those people would have been not just Mexicans or Americans, but an international mix, including people from Europe and China, who came to work on the rails or in nearby mines, as well as Native Americans. Their lives may well have involved crossing the border on a regular, perhaps daily, basis.

Borderlands by their nature are zones of interaction. Some of it is positive—trade, cultural exchange, linguistic innovation—while other aspects are less desirable, not least illicit commerce, racism, and violence. Borders require certain kinds of flexibility, among them the ability to speak multiple languages, calculate more than one currency, or assume different identities. They also, at times, demand demarcation and even militarization. Borders can be a potent reminder of power and possession. These divisions are also, as Juan Poblete has pointed out, something people can carry within as they go about their everyday life, an “internalized border zone.”

Today the security fence cuts across that old clearing, with Nogales, Arizona, a city of about 20,000, on one side, and its southern Sonoran neighbor, now more than ten times larger, spreading out to the south. This stretch of fence is a physical reminder of the long and often troubled history between the two nations, calling to mind the blunt assessment by the Nobel Prize–winning Mexican author Octavio Paz that the United States and Mexico are “condemned to live alongside each other.” Or, in the more graphic description of the scholar and poet Gloria Anzaldúa, the border is “una herida abierta”—an open wound—and a place set up “to distinguish us from them.”

Given that the entirety of the Americas was shaped by the arrival of Europeans, the demographic demolition of indigenous communities, and the use of African slavery, what constitutes us and them? Lines on a map? Catholicism against Protestantism? The Spanish language instead of English? The myth of “American exceptionalism” has for too long eclipsed other ways of contemplating the trajectory of US history, even down to the use of “American.” As the Spanish historian José Luis Abellán explained in his book La idea de América (The Idea of America), when a Spaniard used the term “America,” it traditionally referred to Latin America—as it also did for people living there—but “when an American speaks of America, he refers to his own country, the United States.” Now that usage of “America” dominates, but a return to its old meaning might be useful.

The myth of “American exceptionalism” has for too long eclipsed other ways of contemplating the trajectory of US history, even down to the use of “American.”

Some historians have long argued that the United States is part of wider Latin America, in studies ranging from Herbert Eugene Bolton’s “Epic of Greater America” in the 1930s to Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s more recent assessment that the United States “is—and has to be—a Latin American country.” Thinking about the United States in this way can help make sense of a past that goes far beyond the boundary markers at the United States–Mexico border and instead focuses on the longer hemispheric connections, from Canada to the tip of Chile.


Even when we accept that the United States is part of a larger Latin American community, this still leaves the question of who is Hispanic and, correspondingly, who is American. The term “Hispanic” is being employed here in part to express a sense of continuity, as the word reaches back to the Roman past (Hispania) and forward to the census-taking present. It is at once a panethnic label—the worlds of Europeans, Africans, Asians, and Amerindians were all transformed by the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas—as well as one that today serves as a marketing category. It has a long past, yet its current incarnation is the product of constant reinvention.

For the most part, people from Latin American countries identify themselves by their nation of birth: Cuban, Colombian, Venezuelan. As soon as they come to the United States, they often find themselves categorized as Hispanic or Latino/a, or the more inclusive Latinx. This modern usage is in large part an identity created in the United States and one that brings a certain uniformity—though also vital political clout—to a diverse group of people. Even the assumption that people in Latin America are Spanish-speakers is misplaced, as there are a wide variety of Amerindian languages spoken across the continent. My use of the term “Hispanic” is a way to pick at, challenge, and understand its meaning, and examine the historical forces that formed its linguistic evolution and social context.

Yet for those of Spanish-American origin who have long been in the United States, a reverse question could be asked: at what point are you allowed to not be Hispanic? People who are identified by the census as “Hispanic” might have a grandparent who arrived from Mexico or Cuba two generations ago, or might speak only a smattering of Spanish, but this is often met with an expectation that as recent arrivals they should be knowledgeable about their “heritage” and “traditions,” which, by implication, are not Anglo-American.

Language, in particular, is no small matter. Are you Hispanic if you don’t speak Spanish? The share of Hispanic people who speak Spanish at home has declined, with 73 percent speaking it in 2015, against 78 percent in 2006, according to a Pew Research Center study. Despite this drop, another poll of Hispanic people in 2015 found that for 71 percent of respondents, it was not necessary to speak Spanish in order to be considered Latino. Despite these shifts, the overall number of Spanish-speakers in the United States remains a source of anxiety to those for whom “becoming American” means speaking English. Some 440 million people are native Spanish-speakers, while around 370 million are native English-speakers, and at least the same number again speak English as a second language.

The United States is now second only to Mexico in the number of its Spanish-speakers, with 41 million speakers and nearly 12 million who say they are bilingual. At the same time, 31 states—including Florida, Arizona, and California—have declared English their official language. There is a great deal of silence about this particular aspect of the Hispanic past, as if prohibiting the use of Castilian will somehow erase that history as well as resolve the contemporary issues. “We are never as steeped in history,” the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote in his classic Silencing the Past, “as when we pretend not to be.”


Alongside language is a question that permeates every pore of contemporary American life: race. In this seemingly endless obsession with physiognomy, a toxic hangover from slavery and Jim Crow, is “Hispanic” just another way of saying “not white”? Although scientific notions of “race” have been discredited, as a social force it continues to order society, placing hierarchies in everything from the organization of labor to the distribution of rights. Creating “whiteness” and granting access to it were—and remain—ways to create power and exert social control. As the historian Nell Irvin Painter pointed out in The History of White People, race has no scientific basis and so “is an idea, not a fact, and its question demands answers from the conceptual rather than factual realm.” Race, at its most basic level, as sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant point out, is a way of “making up people.” To them, the social development of the United States had been shaped by what they call “racialization,” a process by which “racial meaning” is extended to “a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice or group,” in this case, Hispanic people.

Historians, activists, novelists, and people in everyday life are trying to make sense of race, while the practice of putting people into racial categories continues. This is not unique to the United States. All Latin American nations share in the colonial legacy of racism, as, too, does Canada. In some places, including Mexico, it is a question of a person looking more indigenous or European. In others, like the Dominican Republic, it is about “blackness.” Even seemingly positive trends toward multiculturalism, or in Mexico mestizaje, have led to criticism that such color blindness continues to obscure structural inequalities and ongoing racism. A glance across the powerful and wealthy in Latin America shows the lightest-skinned often at the top. These different whitenesses sometimes do not translate, however, and many people find they go from being white in their home nation to being “Hispanic” or “brown” in the United States. “Brown confuses,” Richard Rodriguez wrote in his memoir about race. “Brown forms at the border of contradiction,” though with its mixture of Indian, African, and European, to Rodriguez brown is the true “founding palette.”

Creating “whiteness” and granting access to it were—and remain—ways to create power and exert social control.

Equally muddied is the issue of “ethnicity,” which overlaps with markers such as language or food. There is no clear consensus on where Hispanic people lie on this spectrum, or even how to pinpoint ethnicity. To the historian Alan Gallay, an ethnic identity “becomes apparent only when people are faced with an external threat that draws them together,” a conclusion drawn from his research on Native Americans in the 17th century. For Gallay, ethnicity is “relational and situational” and thus there can be no “pure” ethnicities because even elements like religion or language are mutable. In the context of Mexican-Americans, the historian George J. Sánchez has described ethnicity as being “not a fixed set of customs surviving from life in Mexico, but rather a collective identity that emerged from daily experience in the United States.” For the Californian journalist Carey McWilliams, writing in 1948, the terms “Anglo” and “Hispano” were simply “the heads and tails of a single coin, a single ethnic system; each term has a meaning only as the other is implied.”

Today, ethnicity remains as puzzling as race, and it, too, is often shaped by stereotypes. Are you still “Hispanic” if you speak only English, are Protestant, and don’t care for tacos? Language, race, and ethnicity also overlap with the question of citizenship, and so inform one of the key underlying issues: belonging. This can lead to what the legal historian Mae Ngai has called “alien citizens,” which she defined as “persons who are American citizens by virtue of their birth in the United States but who are presumed to be foreign by the mainstream of American culture and, at times, by the state.” To Ngai, a type of foreignness can exist in one’s own homeland, where one group, such as Hispanics, is deemed “illegitimate, criminal, and unassimilable.” Despite being citizens, they are told they don’t belong.

Now turn this around: who does belong? Who is allowed to be American? Although it is a nation that puts an immigrant narrative at its core—a story that immediately shunted aside the history of black and Native American people—many of the groups who came to the United States in significant numbers have faced some sort of prejudice. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, was wary of the Germans, asking, “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanise us?” However, in the earliest days of nationhood—itself a political experiment—the United States needed to craft an identity.

In some ways this was a reaction to Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries, which was a kaleidoscope of often warring kingdoms, city-states, and principalities. For the fledgling United States, identity was also an existential question. Survival apart from the British empire depended on some sort of unity, not least because the strip of 13 colonies along the Atlantic was surrounded by Native American nations and the encroaching Spanish and French. In formulating what the United States would be, one founder, John Jay, had this vision of the nation: “Providence has been pleased to give this one country to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion.”

Like whiteness, being “American” was designed at some level to be exclusionary; it was built on Anglo and northern European ancestry, Protestantism, and, for the most part, speaking English. There was no place for the Indians or the enslaved Africans, or even southern Europeans. To J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, a French immigrant who arrived in 1759 and was writing around the time of the American Revolution, “Americans” were “a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes.” Crèvecœur, whose Letters from an American Farmer enjoyed a wide readership in Europe, considered these people to be “melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

By the 19th century, during a time of widespread Eastern and southern European immigration, southern Mediterraneans such as Italians and Greeks were considered not quite “white.” Yet by the early 20th century, Mexican laborers, who were in demand, were allowed, up to a point, to be “white.” White, it appears, was a gray area. Italians are now considered white, but Mexicans usually are not. Like many of the categories that are bandied about—race, ethnicity, black, white, Latino—“American” is a social construction, supported by a scaffolding of historical precedent, tradition, legal structures, and government legislation. For all the talk of the melting pot or the salad bowl, for all the protests, Twitter feuds, and talking heads, the question of who is allowed to be American remains unresolved.


From El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America. Used with the permission of the publisher, Grove. Copyright © 2019 by Carrie Gibson.

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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