From the Editor

It is surprising to realize that the Hispanic legacy in American history is a story rarely told in our classrooms. In this issue of History Now, we hope to provide our readers with a broad sampling of the rich and varied stories of centuries of Hispanic participation in the building and sustaining of our country. We have gathered experts in Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican political and cultural history to share with you their knowledge of a legacy too often overlooked as central to “e pluribus unum.”

Professor Rubén G. Rumbaut provides an overview in his essay, “Hispanics in the United States: Origins and Destinies.” Rumbaut reminds us that the Spanish roots of the nation were planted a century before Jamestown. In 1513, Juan Ponce de León explored a semi-tropical world he named La Florida, and in 1570 Spanish Jesuits established a mission in Virginia. By the time the English colonies mounted their revolution against Great Britain, Spanish communities stretched from San Diego to San Francisco and Spanish culture was established along the American gulf coast. The legacy of Spanish exploration and settlement can be traced in place names in California, Colorado, Nevada, and as far north as Montana, yet, as Professor Rumbaut points out, our collective memory is clouded by prejudices and stereotypes. After the 1840s, for example, Mexican Americans were subject to segregation and discrimination similar to what faced African Americans in the Jim Crow era.

Professor Neil Foley continues the coverage of Mexican American history in his essay, “Mexicans in the Making of America.” Seemingly invisible in our history, one in ten Americans are of Mexican descent and as of 2017, Mexican Americans constitute 63 percent of the Hispanic population within our country. These Americans are not simply found in the border states; they are working and settling in the South, the Midwest, and New England, blending their culture with the dominant white culture. As Professor Foley notes, “it is not uncommon [in the South] to find grits and frijoles, hash browns and huevos rancheros” on menus in Georgia and Alabama. Unlike recent immigrants from Central America, most Mexicans are not “immigrants” but later generations of Hispanic settlement that preceded the independence of the English colonies. In fact, as Richard Rodriguez puts it, “We were here when here was there.” The Rio Grande border divides two nations, Foley acknowledges, but the Mexican culture bridges this divide. Family traditions, religious and cultural practices, food, and music know no boundaries. Professor Foley ends his essay with a look at the federal government’s policy toward immigration from Mexico and at the decreasing yet still existing willingness of men and women seeking opportunities to cross the border illegally. Along with US-born Mexican Americans, the modern immigrants contribute to our economy, paying taxes and fighting in our wars.

In “Sugar, Cigars and Revolution: The Making of Cuban New York,” Professor Lisandro Pérez brings to life the intimate connection between Havana and Manhattan in the nineteenth century. Ships carrying Cuban sugar led the way in trade between the two islands but soon cargoes included cigars and leaf tobacco. These ships returned to the Caribbean with American manufactured goods, including machinery and luxury items purchased by wealthy Cuban families. Cubans flocked to New York City to acquire education, opportunity, and prosperity, eager to start new lives just as immigrants from Europe hoped to do. A cultural exchange followed, with baseball becoming the Cuban national sport and Cuban music influencing jazz. New York also became a refuge for political challengers to the Spanish government on the island, most notably Félix Varela y Morales, a Catholic priest who established three Manhattan churches. By midcentury, political opposition to Spanish rule in Cuba became the primary stimulus for migration from the island to New York. Ultimately these radicals would wage war for their independence from Spain. This conflict prompted many wealthy Cubans to emigrate to New York where they joined the social life of the local elites. But working-class Cubans came as well, especially, Pérez notes, cigar workers who brought their craft to New York.

Professor Mary E. Mendoza turns our attention to agriculture in her essay, “Mexican Farm Labor and the Agricultural Economy of the United States.” Mendoza traces the reliance on Mexican labor from the early twentieth century through the post–World War II agreement between the American and Mexican governments that allowed a steady flow of “braceros” to work as US farm laborers. This bracero policy continued until 1964. During the postwar era publicity portrayed the Mexican braceros as “Good Neighbors . . . helping to harvest victory in western farmlands.” But the reality was far harsher: these “guest workers” were badly treated and deaths from malnutrition were not uncommon. Seen as inferior to American workers, they were placed in subpar housing and were expected to work for hours on end in the heat and humidity, with poisonous chemicals. The Bracero Program, Professor Mendoza notes, normalized the poor treatment of migrant workers. When the Bracero Program ended, a new policy created a cap on the number of people who could enter from the Western Hemisphere; this created our modern “immigration problem.” Despite this, Mexican farm workers, often entering the US illegally, remain the backbone of the Southwest agricultural economy.

In his essay, “The Puerto Rican Experience in World War I,” Professor Harry Franqui-Rivera turns our attention to the US territory in the Caribbean. Noting that between 18,000 and 20,000 Puerto Ricans served in the US armed forces in WWI, Franqui-Rivera argues that their service is “wrapped in myth.” First of all, their service was not a pathway to citizenship since the Jones Act of 1917, granting citizenship, was enacted before American entrance into the war. In addition, the Foraker Act of 1900 had already made the island inhabitants “American nationals.” Still, the Jones Act granting citizenship did reflect a growing sense that many Puerto Ricans were discontent with US rule; citizenship, it was hoped, would bring a stability to the island that was essential from the federal government’s perspective. President Wilson also hoped that extending citizenship would improve US relations with Latin American nations. The Puerto Rican response to the war effort was speedy and impressive: more than one hundred thousand men registered for the draft. From these men, only 17,855 were accepted, and a division of the Army was created composed of four Puerto Rican regiments. However, as Professor Franqui-Rivera points out, the US military never intended to use this division for combat. Nevertheless a Puerto Rican regiment was sent to defend the Panama Canal. Puerto Ricans residing on the mainland were recruited and sent abroad as members of either black or white units, depending on their own skin color. Ultimately the Puerto Rican National Guard was born out of the Puerto Rican division and it continues today.

Professor Vicki L. Ruiz examines the role of Mexican women in “Risk Takers and History Makers: Mexican Women of the World War II Generation.” Between 1910 and 1930, over a million Mexicans migrated to the US, but one third of these immigrants were either deported or repatriated. Perhaps 60 percent of these people were, in fact, US citizens—and most of them were children. Ruiz offers us a variety of narratives about this tragedy. For example, Emilia Castaneda was a citizen by birth of this country, and she, along with her father, who was a US legal resident, was deported to Mexico. “We lived under a tree and a tent for a while,” Emilia later recalled. “We had no running water and we had to hang our food on ropes so the rats wouldn’t get it.” Those girls who remained in the US went to work after eighth grade in canneries, packinghouses, garment shops, and the service industry. Yet some young Mexican American women played critical roles in union organizing and during World War II, becoming “Rosie the Riveters” in the defense industries. Professor Ruiz quotes Alicia Mendeola Shelit, who declared with pride that she was bringing in the money to feed her family, “like a man.” As working women during the war, these women broke many of the traditional restraints placed on their gender, going dancing and socializing without a chaperone. Barriers were broken, especially when in 1948, the California supreme court ruled in favor of a marriage between a Mexican American woman and an African American man. Noting that the mother of historian Edward Escobar combined Mexican and Catholic values with American working-class progressivism in a life of marriage, motherhood, and labor activism, Ruiz concludes by saying: “Latina history is American history.”

In “Why I Embrace the Term Latinx,” Professor Ed Morales offers his thoughts on nomenclature and its political significance. The term, he notes, is “the most recent development in a naming debate that reflects America’s politics of race and ethnicity.” For most of the past century, groups from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba looked for a way to unify their very different concerns. Puerto Ricans were focused on the colonial status of their homeland; Cubans on US foreign policy toward their island; and Mexicans on US immigration policies. It was the Nixon administration that generated the first umbrella term, Hispanic, hoping to calm what they saw as the unrest in these communities by promoting social programs for advancement within them. But, as some activists pointed out, Hispanic overly identified them with Spanish cultural, racial, and ethnic origins. These Mexican Americans and New York Puerto Ricans rejected identification with whiteness. The label they chose—Latino—served to stress that they were products of mixed-race societies. Cuban Americans, however, continued to prefer Hispanic. Latino soon became problematic as gender consciousness emerged. Latino became Latino/a. Latinx arose to eliminate these gender identifiers. This new terminology has its critics, Morales admits. But Morales embraces the term, for it represents, he argues, an openness and diversity.

Professors Marisol Berríos-Miranda and Shannon Dudley carry us into the Hispanic cultural heritage with “American Sabor: A Guided Playlist of Latino Music.” In this essay, they highlight songs by Latinos and Latinas that have brought “sabor” or delight to American music. In each case, Berríos-Miranda and Dudley provide a history of the song and its genre. Some of these tunes are certain to be familiar to many of us: “Oye Como Va” by Santana, an example of Latin rock; “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens, a Chicano song he learned at family gatherings; “Bang Bang” by the Joe Cuba Sextet, a mix of Latino and African American sensibilities; “La Murga,” by Willie Colón, a number with rhythms drawn from Panamanian carnival music and dubbed “Salsa” by his record label; “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” by Selena Quintanilla, a Tejano hit which blends reggae, R&B, and rock with the rhythm of cumbia from Colombia and later Mexico; “Conga” by the Gloria Estefan–fronted Miami Sound Machine, a blend of disco music with Afro-Cuban percussion; and finally, “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, a worldwide smash that Justin Bieber recorded to make “cross over” history on Billboard.

In addition to these essays, History Now provides readers with a very special feature, a fifty-minute interview by Google’s Hispanic Network with Luis Miranda—trustee of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, founding president of the Hispanic Federation, and father of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda—available on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKc9ofmU_PM. In addition, the issue includes two lesson plans as well as two videos and four previous essays on Hispanic history from History Now. Finally, we have dipped into the Gilder Lehrman Collection to direct you to nineteen primary sources, ranging from the landing of Columbus in 1492 to the confirmation of governors for the territories of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines in 1901. In all, an embarrassment of riches for your classroom teaching.

For me, and for History Now’s managing editor Nicole Seary, this has been an exciting issue to prepare. We hope you will agree that, with this issue of History Now, we have truly uncovered a past too long ignored or forgotten.

Carol Berkin, Editor
Nicole Seary, Managing Editor