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Bruce S. Thornton - Contributor
Bruce Thornton is a professor of Classics at Cal State Fresno and co-author of Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age and author of Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization (Encounter Books). His most recent book is Searching for Joaquin: Myth, Murieta, and History in California (Encounter Books). [go to Thornton index]

MEChA Neverland
The Mythical History of the Southwest
[Bruce S. Thornton] 10/3/03

Defenders of California gubernatorial candidate Cruz Bustamante's involvement in MEChA--the Chicano student organization that advocates a "reconquest" of the Southwest for the benefit of the "bronze race"--have tried to dismiss the group as a harmless social club whose fiery rhetoric of racial chauvinism is intended merely to boost the self-esteem of Mexican students. Yet the mythic history justifying that rhetoric goes beyond any one group. It provides as well the hidden rationale behind a number of positions and policies from bilingual education to illegal immigration.

That fantasy history claims that the whole Southwest was once Aztlán, the homeland of La Raza, the "bronze" race, who are "the Chicano inhabitants and civilizers of the northern land of Aztlán from whence came our forefathers," as the "Plan of Aztlán" puts it. This homeland was lost to the "brutal 'gringo' invasion," and the goal of the "Plan" is the "reconquest" of that lost homeland. The racist drift of all this is apparent in the motto of MEChA: "For the Race everything, outside the Race, nothing."

The incoherence of all this is obvious. We can start with the idea of "la raza," which the Chicano movement borrowed from Spanish strongman Francisco Franco, who established a "Dia de la Raza," a holiday celebrating not a distinct ethnic group but the global Spanish empire, those peoples united by a common religion and language. MEChA has taken this imperialist concept and turned it into an exclusive racialist category. Whatever one thinks of Franco or his motives, his idea of a people united by common culture is light years from a crude race-based identity redolent of Nazi Aryan mythology ("the call of our blood is our power," as "The Plan" puts it) and incompatible with the premises of liberal democracy.

But who exactly is this "bronze people with a bronze culture" that supposedly once inhabited the Southwest? The various Indian tribes conquered by the Spanish? Or does it comprise mestizos, those descended from both Indians and Spanish, like most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans? The latter, of course; very few Indians consider themselves "Chicanos." But mestizos aren't original inhabitants of any place before the Spanish Conquest, let alone the "civilizers." They come into being as a result of the European occupation of the New World, and Europe bestows as much, or even more, to the heritage and identity of contemporary Mexican-Americans as does whatever Indian tribe is claimed as an antecedent.

The European heritage of Mexico, however, must be camouflaged by this crude multiculturalist melodrama of European conquerors destroying and enslaving noble indigenous peoples, in order to validate a historical claim to victimization and reparation. By identifying themselves as non-white indigenous occupiers of the land, MEChA activists can then cast themselves as victims of a racist imperialism and colonialism. As such they are due all the consideration, support, and sympathy that the bien pensant left lavishes on Third World revolutionaries struggling, in the words of "The Plan," for "total liberation from oppression, exploitation, and racism."

This claim to redress based on a historical injustice is also implicit in the reference to the "brutal 'gringo' invasion." In other words, contemporary Mexican inhabitants of the Southwest are the rightful owners of a land upon which they now work or from which they are excluded. As Chicano activist and poet Rodolfo Gonzales put it in 1968, "Robbed of our land, our people were driven to the migrant labor fields and the cities." Contemporary Mexicans in the Southwest are not immigrants but displaced refugees attempting to reclaim the stolen homeland and a disfigured culture their ancestors created.

Once more, the facts of history quickly dispel these illusions. California on the eve of the Mexican War (1846) was inhabited by at most 15,000 non-Indians, including substantial numbers of British and Americans. The Mexican inhabitants of Alta California, as the province was called, had developed a distinct identity and called themselves Californios. During the mere 25 years that California was part of Mexico, the Californio ruling elite, tired of the mother country's neglect, schemed with various foreign powers to secede from Mexico and become either an independent republic or a protectorate of one of the great powers. Meanwhile Mexico considered California a potential bargaining chip to be used in settling foreign debt or indemnities.

When California became a territory after the Mexican War, there was not a single school, printing press, or factory in the province. The power and privilege of the ruling class were based on huge ranchos, land once owned by the missions and intended for the Indians, but given away to friends and cronies of various governors after the missions were secularized in 1833--by 1846, one quarter of California, 26 million acres, had been given away. Two-hundred families controlled 14,000,000 acres, with some families possessing ranchos as large as 300,000 acres. And these ranchos were worked in the main by Indians, some of whom lived little better than slaves.

After California became a state, the land grants bestowed by the Spanish and Mexican governments had to be validated under the terms of the California Land Bill. For five years a three-man commission examined 800 grants covering 12,000,000 acres. The majority was validated; those rejected could appeal, in some cases to the Supreme Court. A cumbersome legal process, the language barrier, and hordes of unscrupulous lawyers no doubt led to landowners unjustly losing title to their property. But this was no racist plot: English and Americans who had been given grants by the Mexican government had to go through the same process. John Sutter, on whose land gold was discovered, had to confirm his 50,000-acre grant from the Mexican government. Although Sutter eventually prevailed in the Supreme Court, the lengthy fight broke him.

In any event, the radical Chicano mythic history of land-theft and displacement obscures the historical reality that Californio overlords enjoyed a lifestyle of leisure and consumption subsidized by the labor of Indians for whom the land had been intended. No one has explained why the breaking up of such estates worked by peons, praised as revolutionary reform throughout Latin America, in Alta California instead becomes an injustice rationalizing political privilege in the present.

Yet this narrative of a homeland ravished by gringo interlopers conceals an even more egregious historical falsehood. The simple fact is that the vast majority of Mexicans who immigrated to California did so after it became part of the United States. Before then, the only Mexicans sent to Alta California were retired soldiers, criminals, and orphans. In the decade before the Mexican War more Americans came to California than did Mexicans. For the latter, there simply was no reason to brave deserts and Apaches to reach an undeveloped land dominated by grandee rancheros. After the Gold Rush, Mexican immigration did not quicken until the early Twentieth Century, when the displacements of the Mexican Revolution, the development of labor intensive agriculture, and the completion of the railroad to California made immigration more attractive.

Despite the myths of La Raza, then, most Mexicans in California today are the descendents not of the unjustly displaced original inhabitants returning to reclaim a stolen patrimony, but of immigrants who made the choice to leave their homeland and seek a better life in the United States. If this claim of prior possession is false, then why make it? The answer lies in the birth of the Chicano movement in the identity politics of the sixties and the farmworkers movement.

Rather than articulate injustices in the context of immigration and labor issues, both of which cut across ethnic boundaries, the Chicano movement followed the lead of the Black Power and American Indian movements and emphasized instead a distinct ethnic identity forged in oppression and historical injustice similar to the displacement of American Indians from their land or the forced transportation of Africans to America. Thus like Indians or blacks, Chicanos had a moral claim to redress based on an injustice unique to their historical circumstances and ethnic identity: the violent theft of their ancestral homeland, an act of cultural rape akin to the colonial and imperial crimes of Europeans in the Third World. This paradigm resonated with those attracted to the growing vogue of noble-savage multiculturalism, as well as with the leftists in the media and academy eager to castigate "Amerika" for its racist imperialist sins.

This assumption lies behind the favorite Chicano rejoinder to any criticism: "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." This canard is politically useful, for it sidesteps the responsibilities immigrants to the United States traditionally have accepted, which is to assimilate to the country they choose to live in, to accept its language, traditions, and values, and to decide for themselves how much of the old country they would keep. With the mythic history of unjust displacement, however, the burden is now on the mainstream culture to adapt to and accommodate the culture of those it oppressed and robbed of their land. The dominant culture must expiate its historical crimes with various sorts of reparation and entitlements. The beneficiaries are the race hacks and the diversity industry that make a living peddling to guilty whites an identity predicated on victimization, grievance, and ethnic difference.

These attitudes lurk behind most discussions of illegal immigration, as can be seen in the opposition to the term "illegal alien," since these folks from Mexico are not "aliens" but rather some sort of returning refugee simply reclaiming what was once theirs by right, a land whose true culture is the Mexican one violently displaced and distorted by the gringo invaders. The stealthy legitimization of illegal aliens--most recently in the legislation allowing them to acquire drivers licenses--thus is merely part of what the "Plan of Aztlán" call "restitution": "Restitution for past economic slavery, political exploitation, ethnic and cultural psychological destruction and denial of civil and human rights." Thus a "reconquest" impossible by force will be achieved through demography and the abandonment of the old model of assimilation, in an attempt to make California more like the culture illegal aliens risk their lives to leave.

Needless to say, this fantasy history serves an identity politics diametrically opposed to the foundational assumptions of American society: that rights inhere in individuals, not in groups or categories. Immigration has worked in America because immigrants accepted that the price of coming to America was the acceptance of this core assumption and the rejection of any part of their old culture that contradicted it. The choice was hard, at times even brutal, but back then people understood that to have an "unum" from such various "pluribus," there had to be a unifying common culture of political values and ideals that in the public sphere trumped any others. You were free to opt out, just as you were free not to learn English. But that choice meant a limitation on your political and economic opportunities.

The racialist ideology of groups like MEChA, however, promotes not unity but fragmentation; not the primacy of the individual and his rights but the privileges of a group defined by victimization and grievance; not recognition of the greater opportunity and freedom of the society one has risked one's life to enter, but a sullen disparagement of the culture that provides rights and opportunities the home country can not deliver. As such, this ideology should be rejected forcefully by any candidate for public office.

copyright 2003 Bruce S. Thornton

Searching for Joaquin
by Bruce S. Thornton

Greek Ways
by Bruce S. Thornton

Bonfire of the Humanities
by Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath, Bruce S. Thornton

Plagues of the Mind
by Bruce S. Thornton

Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality

by Bruce S. Thornton





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