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A “Fantasy Heritage”?: A Review of the Changing Literature on Hispano Identity in New Mexico Todd Mitchell Meyers Last of all, the Mexicans; in-bred and isolation-shrunken descendants of the Castilian world-finders; living almost as much against the house as in it; ignorant as slaves, and more courteous than kings; poor as Lazarus, and more hospitable than Croesus; Catholics from A to Izzard, except when they take occasion to be Penitentes—and even then fighting to bring their matted scourges and bloody crosses into the church which bars its door to them. —Charles F. Lummis, 1893 When Charles Lummis, an Anglo-American booster for New Mexico, wrote these words in 1893, he meant them as a compliment. It was a backhanded one to be sure. Still, his portrayal of “Mexicans” in New Mexico lacked the complete denigration that characterized the racist thinking of many of his Anglo-American contemporaries. Elaborating on why “Mexicans” did not deserve to be held in full disdain, Lummis added, “The Mexican is popularly listed . . . as cowardly and treacherous. He is neither. The sixth generation is too soon to turn coward the blood which made the noblest record of lonely heroism that time ever read.”1 That “noblest record” belonged to the Spanish conquistadors. It was a curious reversal of the “Black Legend” that Americans had long drawn upon to distance their own colonial practices from those of the Spanish. Here, Lummis not only celebrated the Spanish past, but to some small degree acknowledged the historical roots of New Mexico’s Spanishspeaking population, descendants of the “Castilian world-finders.” Given Anglo-Americans’ poor perception of Mexicans in the late nineteenth century, it was only fitting that someone promoting New Mexico, with its large Hispanic population, would downplay what others Todd Meyers is a PhD Candidate in history at Southern Methodist University. Journal of the Southwest 51, 3 (Autumn 2009) : 403–422 404  ✜  Journal of the Southwest viewed as negative attributes. In Lummis’s estimation, the “Mexican” population of New Mexico had devolved from the original Spanish explorers and settlers, yet not fully. Lummis was neither the first nor the last to express Hispanophilia, praising New Mexico’s Spanish past while simultaneously downplaying any negative “Mexican-ness” of its people.2 Indeed, even New Mexican Hispanics3 themselves eventually adopted a similar stance. Many began referring to themselves as Spanish Americans, tying their identity to a heritage uniquely derived from the Spanish colonial period. Historians have since tried to assess the cultural identity of New Mexico’s Hispanic population. Given the appearance of several recent books on the subject of Spanish American identity, a consideration of the changing literature seems in order. As these recent works have revealed, applying and using cultural nomenclature is a tricky business, as identity labels both unite and divide people, often arbitrarily so. A review of the literature on Hispano identity suggests that historians should be cognizant that identity labels not only serve as analytical devices, but also shape analyses. Although not a comprehensive treatment of all the available works, this essay identifies three relatively distinct elements that characterize the historical treatments of Hispanic identity in New Mexico. I have grouped the works according to whether they focus on the function, delineation, or articulation of identity. These categories are not intended to be mechanistic; nor are they mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, they do offer a sense of the differences encountered within the historical literature on Spanish American identity. The first category of historical literature arose around the mid-twentieth century, as some historians, concerned with the politics of identity, began to question notions of a “Spanish” identity of New Mexican Hispanics . This group of historians, which greatly influenced the Chicano Movement, denied a legitimate “Spanish American” identity, suggesting that such labels artificially divided a larger, culturally Mexican, racially mestizo population in the Greater American Southwest. They argued that the function of Spanish American identity was to “whiten” Hispanos. A second category emerged later as a number of historians came to defend Hispano cultural distinctiveness from its detractors. While not denying the function of Hispano identity, this school was more concerned with delineating that identity, in order to determine whether it was distinctive...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-1371
Print ISSN
0894-8410
Pages
pp. 403-421
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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