Rethinking (Latin) American History: New Perspectives for #HHM


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When I think of ways to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month #HHM, a history lesson isn’t quite what first comes to mind. I remember my overly zealous Latin American history professor from college, who managed to maintain her very strong Bostonian accent even when speaking in Spanish. So, can we just move on to the mojitos???

Though then I came across Latino Americans, a six part documentary series from PBS, which covers the history of Latinos in the United States from the 1500s up until the present. Okay, so going all the way back to the 1500s may not be the most enticing either. But if you’re willing to give it a chance, the documentary offers a perspective on American history that you probably didn’t read about in high school. Here are some fun facts to think about from the first half of the series.

Spanish was the first language spoken in the United States. It shouldn’t surprise us that there are so many Spanish speakers in the United States. The Spanish first settled in the modern day borders of the United States, and the United States has held onto a lot of the language—California, Los Angeles, margarita. Okay, that last one is a stretch, but even those of us who didn’t grow up speaking Spanish could go the extra mile to pronounce the name correctly the next time we order one.

Spanish speaking Californios showed the rest of us how to do #NorCal. In the early 1800s, Sonoma and Napa in Northern California were inhabited by the Californios—the descendants of early Spanish settlers. Land was a symbol of honor and dignity, and the latest fashions and clothing were highly valued. Wealthy Californios spent their days tasting wine on their vast estates—any of the present day Real Housewives would have been put to shame by these women! Keep that in mind for your next trip to Wine Country.

Who’s actually immigrating? Prior to the Mexican American War in 1848, Mexicans inhabited territories in much of the modern day American Southwest. The war began as Americans immigrated to this territory and sought greater control. Who would have thought that back then the immigration controversy was al revés?

Recruiters have always been looking for bilingual candidates. With the agricultural boom in Texas and California in the early 1900s, American companies had trouble meeting their labor demands with American workers. They would head to the Mexican border in an effort to fill these positions, where Mexicans were eager to come to the United States to escape the Mexican Revolution. Recruiters often created signs in Spanish to be able communicate with prospective employees. Similarly, the bracero program brought Mexicans to the United States to fill positions vacated by American citizens during World War II. Too bad they didn’t have Duolingo back then!

Latinos have been rocking the red carpet since before J.Lo, but there’s still a long way to go. With the influx of Mexican immigration in the booming 1920s, particularly to LA, Mexicans like Dolores del Río made their way into Hollywood with roles in silent films. But the lack of diversity in the 2016 Academy Awards which sparked debate isn’t anything new. The 1960 film, From Hell to Eternity, highlights the heroism of Guy Gabaldon, who single-handedly facilitated the surrender of over 800 Japanese soldiers during World War II. Just one slight inconsistency—although Gabaldon was a Latino from LA who was just over five feet tall, his character was played by the six foot tall blond American, Jeffrey Hunter. Too bad they didn’t have Twitter in the 1960s—#OscarsSoWhite should have started back then.

1950s Texas beauty pageants were ahead of their time. Contestants in modern day beauty pageants like Miss Universe are judged by a variety of criteria, so it’s not just about physical beauty. At least that’s the case when we’re not distracted with trying to figure out who actually won the competition. Miss Philippines? Miss Colombia? I’m still not sure… Anyway, beauty pageants in Texas had this down 60 years ago, at a time when Mexican American citizens faced harsh discrimination. The contestant who raised the most money for community members to pay the poll tax, which often prevented immigrants from voting, was crowned the winner.

Check out the PBS documentary here for the full history of Latinos in the United States. And visit HipLatina again soon for our next history lesson, where things get more modern. You’ll be able to enjoy that mojito more as you get on your feet with Gloria Estefan.

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