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Why All Americans Need to Know Mexican History

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Gabriela Soto Laveaga has an essay in the Post on one of my hobbyhorses: why all Americans need to have an understanding of Mexican history.

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.

What if schoolchildren learned to examine Lincoln’s resolution and protests against what he thought was an unjust war? This broader context would show students that national stories are not tidy, they are messy and sometimes brimming with illegal, or at least problematic, acts. It would also teach students to interrogate presidential actions and claims, not simply accept them as fact.

In the past few months, diverse battles over what will be taught in our classrooms have a common denominator: pushback against a triumphalist narrative, which glorifies the actions of one group over another. Studying the Mexican American War can also teach us about the changing roles of race in our country. Specifically, how some ethnic groups that enjoy broad acceptance today were once reviled, such as, for example, the Irish.

One of the most symbolically powerful events of the war is mostly forgotten in the U.S. today. But Mexicans see the U.S. execution of a predominantly Irish regiment — the Saint Patrick’s Battalion — for treason, as a key event in the war.

The only thing I’d add to this is that there’s so much more than the unjust war to steal half of Mexico so we could expand slavery that needs interrogating. There’s also the Porfiriato and rise of American corporate power in the nation, Wilson’s invasions, the Bracero Program, etc. The larger point, to me at least, is that if Americans weren’t so intentionally ignorant about Mexico, we’d understand a lot more about the nation today and a lot of the politics around U.S.-Mexican relations, especially over immigration, might be less heated and ridiculous. That might be a pipe dream on my part, but actually understanding the rest of the world is something that Americans could try and to a whole lot more for a whole lot of reasons. And that should start with Mexico, as well as Central America and the Caribbean.

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