Every American Needs to Take a History of Mexico ClassRoundup
tags: teaching history, Mexican history
Gabriela Soto Laveaga is professor of the history of science and the Antonio Madero Professor for the study of Mexico at Harvard University. She is working on a book on agricultural research and water in Sonora and the Punjab.
The recent backlash over a new book on the history of The Alamo is not about partisanship nor misapplied critical race theory. It is, however, about denying who we are as a nation. More than an erasure of historical fact it is another example of the ongoing and dangerous practice of cherry-picking parts of our past to fit prepackaged national myths. This is not a new practice nor is our society the only one to rewrite history to suit current political winds. Yet denying a serious, factual analysis of our past sabotages the ability to achieve a more just and equal society. If we start our national origins story with historical falsehoods, we will continue to repeat and expand these fictions to make the initial lie make sense.
One way to right this tendency is by studying the role of Mexico and Mexicans in the making of an American identity. It will not solve a concerted effort to refuse historical truths, but it may help us develop critical skills to identify the problems with teaching a single story of American history. Why Mexico? Among other reasons, Mexico lost more than 50 percent of its territory to the United States. Put starkly, much of our country was once Mexico. Analyzing the origins of this territorial gain places current debates about immigration, the border and even what languages can be taught in schools in a broader perspective.
Essayist and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz understood the value of this decades ago when he wrote, “by coming to know Mexico, North Americans can learn to understand an unacknowledged part of themselves.” That unacknowledged part is complicated. Let’s use just one example, the Mexican American War or the U.S. Invasion, as it is known in Mexico, to illustrate how this pivotal event could be taught in American classrooms to expand how we study the actions of our then still-fledgling nation.
While the history of The Alamo is not as consequential for Mexico, Mexican schoolchildren learn that when their country granted Anglo-Americans permission to settle in the sparsely populated territory of Tejas these settlers agreed to abide by the laws of Mexico and were encouraged to learn Spanish, convert to Catholicism, intermarry with Mexicans and, eventually, renounce slavery.
Instead, Anglo-Americans defied all of these expectations. They started by blowing past the cap on the number of Anglo-Americans who could settle in Mexico. That enabled them to outnumber Mexicans in its northern territory. The Americans then refused to follow the laws of the land; in response, Mexico sent troops to patrol its borders, understanding that a faction of Texans were intent on fostering secession from Mexico.
That is the backdrop for the 1836 siege of The Alamo: a country intent on quelling a rebellion of lawless foreigners who had overstayed their welcome in Mexico.
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