In El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America, Carrie Gibson torpedoes a popular understanding of North American history by searching beyond the Anglo-centric lens through which it’s often taught. By widening the lens of history and refocusing it on the Spanish roots of North America instead of the traditional focus on the continent after Anglo colonization—El Norte traces an underrepresented history of North American in accessible terms, all while doing some serious narrative-busting.
Gibson answered questions about her massive, nearly 600-page book over email. We spoke about what can be gained by rewriting North American history and our understanding of the region to include Hispanic and Spanish influence, and how that new knowledge resonates in today’s political problems. Our correspondence has been edited for clarity and length.
JEZEBEL: I appreciate that you began El Norte with a thoughtful consideration of who gets to be American, which has long been contested: What are the restrictions of the identity? Is America, or should America, be considered an extension of Latin America? In conducting research for this book, did you find yourself working with an evolving definition?
CARRIE GIBSON: Yes, the question of what it means to be “American” certainly evolved over time in my own mind. I found myself drawn back to the ideas of Herbert Bolton, an influential historian at the University of California at Berkley in the early 20th century, who spoke of what he called the “epic of greater America,” which is the larger transnational story of the entire Western hemisphere.
There are, after all, many experiences that are shared from the Canadian Arctic to Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego: European colonization, the death by disease or genocide of indigenous people, the enslavement of African people, and the transition from European colony to independent republic. Bolton’s ideas fell out of fashion, but today, as nationalism is on the rise all around the world, I wanted to revisit his wider approach. What would an “American” look like if we took a more hemispheric view?
On a less theoretical level, I also have been fortunate enough to travel up and down the Americas, and what we have in common becomes so clear on the ground. Everywhere I have gone in Latin America, from Cuba to Argentina, I have found a lot that was familiar: the connections between us are so very present.
The popular public school aphorism is that “America is a melting pot,” which isn’t totally accurate, as evidenced in your book. When did anti-immigrant rhetoric become explicitly racialized?
Forming a country out of 13 diverse colonies was a fraught task, and as part of this nation-building, there was anxiety about differences among the European settlers early on. Benjamin Franklin’s unease about the Germans is one example of this. Out of this anxiety developed an impetus for some sort of commonality, and the deciding factors came from the top down, so we see speaking English and being Protestant, for instance, as becoming crucial parts of this evolving U.S. “American” identity, reflecting the attributes of the most powerful.
This meant, of course, the exclusion of Native Americans and African-descended people, both free and enslaved. The other groups who were allowed to be included changed over time. As people from Catholic nations such as Italy or Ireland began to immigrate in large numbers in the 19th century, they were discriminated against and socially excluded in part for not being Protestant.
However, this religious prejudice has diminished, and now immigrants from those places and many others across Europe—Poland, Greece, and so forth—come under the umbrella of “whiteness,” itself a term that has been forced to expand to include them. This does not happen, however, to people from the Hispanic world.
After the Mexican-American War, there is quite a bit of confusion over the people living the land ceded under the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo in 1848. Who is considered to be “white”? I write in the book about how the acquisition of this territory opens up another front on the question of whiteness, and how this plays out is especially crucial in the histories of Texas, New Mexico, and California, but also in the development of the national conversation about race. There is no one moment where the language becomes explicitly racialized; it evolves from the founding onwards. I should also mention that language is a big part of this too, and the expectation becomes that to be American is to speak English, something that continues to be a point of friction today, as the U.S. now has nearly 50 million Spanish-speakers.
By beginning the story of America in the 16th century—when Juan Ponce de León lands in Florida, the establishment of Santa Elena, South Carolina in 1522, and the knowledge that Pedro de Quejo reached as far as Cape Fear, North Carolina—you position North American history as distinctly Hispanic. That’s two centuries before American independence. Why do you think these stories are not common knowledge?
Certainly, the Spanish failure to colonize Florida with the same level of success of, say, Cuba, is part of the reason this story often is excluded; however, within that is an incredibly important story of indigenous resistance to European incursion that is also largely ignored. The Spanish continued to be stalked by the shadow of the “black legend,” which was a set of stereotypes and myths that circulated from the 1500s onward among Catholic Spain’s Protestant enemies which painted it as a uniquely cruel and violent colonizer. This continued into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was around the same time that history as a discipline was starting to grow, though it was still mostly centered in New England institutions.
As an example, I’ll return to Herbert Bolton. When he went to publish his book The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest, he met significant resistance from his editor at Yale University Press. They wanted Bolton to take a more Anglocentric stance and explain how Protestantism and the spread of Anglo culture triumphed over and drove out Catholic Spanish culture, but Bolton refused. Bolton eventually emerged victoriously and the work was considered pioneering at the time.
Who controls the historical narrative—or at least tries to—is such an important part of understanding history.
If there is any popular consideration of early Hispanic history in the United States, I think it is found in the missions that remain intact (the Alamo, built in 1718, is probably the most famous example) and is often taught with the understanding that Spanish explorers built them to convert indigenous people to Catholicism. El Norte really puts into context that many missions were built by slave labor of Native Americans and then used to convert them. In the case of the Alamo, the mission was turned into a presidio, and eventually mythologized as a testament to Texas independence—it’s much more accurate to say it was a victory for white slave owners who wanted to protect slavery.
By the 1700s, most Native American labor involved servitude to religious orders, which is how they end up building so many Western mission churches—something that is usually not explicitly explained. The Spanish view, in very general terms, was that in exchange for their labor and payment of tribute, Native Americans would receive protection from their enemies and the conversion to Christianity. However, this deal was often not easily struck or accepted, and there was much indigenous resistance to colonization and conversion, especially in parts of modern Texas and the Southwest.
Native Americans also faced debt bondage and peonage, but that was quite different from the situation of the enslaved Africans that the white Anglo settlers in East Texas brought with them. Although the Mexican government’s desire to see slave emancipation in the 1820s meant that there was supposed to be some sort of amelioration of their conditions that would eventually lead to abolition, this did not happen. Instead, the issue resulted in the Texas settlers breaking away.
The centrality of slavery to the story of Texas continues to be shunted aside, and in its place are claims such as the events of 1836 were about fighting the despotism of Mexico’s President Santa Anna. But if you look at the constitution of the Republic of Texas, the protection of slavery is right there, yet it is still not front and center in understanding the history of the Alamo. And it’s not just the Alamo, of course. The dispossession of native land and the existence of slavery can be found in the literal and metaphorical foundations of many buildings and historical sites from the era.
There’s an interesting, unclean shift that happens, leading into the 20th century at the end of the Spanish-American War. For centuries the Spanish were oppressors, but around this moment they became oppressed by another superpower. What parallels exist between some of the language used to bolster anti-Spanish American sentiment in the early 19th century and today’s political situation?
Certainly, by the 20th century, there was a load of new elements to contend with, not least the end of the Spanish empire and the rise of the U.S. one, which reconfigured the relationship between Latin America republics and their northern neighbor.
At the same time, some of the clichés of the “black legend” persisted, this time manifesting themselves in the idea that these nations were not as capable of good self-governance as the United States. For instance, the rhetoric around the Spanish-American-Cuban War implied that should the Cubans and Puerto Ricans be freed from Spanish rule, they were not fit to govern themselves. This sentiment goes further back, to Thomas Jefferson and his era of politicians, when they were watching the independence wars across Latin America in the 1810s and 1820s.
But even today’s language also invokes some of those ideas—if we look at how, for instance, how Venezuela or Brazil is discussed in the media and by politicians, there is an underlying idea that they are “mismanaging” their countries. Nations across Latin America are routinely presented as inherently corrupt, or ungovernable as if that were something that couldn’t happen in the United States.
When your book reaches the 20th century, some of the Hispanic history focuses on culture—in my mind, because those contributions had clear, immediate impact on life stateside, and the fact that Puerto Rico had officially become a colony of the United States and those citizens were migrating North. Do you think there’s a conflation of Hispanic culture and American culture?
Yes, by the early 20th century you see the emergence of this Hispanic culture on two fronts, with people from the Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico and Cuba, transforming the music and food of New York and Miami, while in the West, Mexican and Mexican-American culture persisted and expanded, including into Hollywood.
It bears pointing out that people from these places had their own distinct cultures that they brought with them. So on the one hand, yes, we start to see the formation of an actual U.S-based Hispanic culture; yet on the other, the diversity of places like Cuba and Mexico start to get flattened into the idea of “Hispanic.” Maybe it’s far easier to say something is Americano? Though this too could lend itself to a blurring national identity. That being said, perhaps to have a truly “American” culture we should celebrate what gets created in this overlap, rather than within national boundaries.