Are Hispanics Westerners? The debate continues

Howard Sutherland, who knows Mexico well, makes a mighty contribution to the debate on whether Hispanics are Westerners. Since his e-mail is too long to be included among the other comments in that thread (which is still ongoing), I am putting it here in its own entry.

Are Hispanics Western? The answer depends upon which Latin American one is talking about. Borges? Yes. Villa-Lobos? Yes. In Mexico, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz? Yes. Octavio Paz? Yes. Vicente Fox? Yes, even him, although he is a traitor (but so is GWB: living proof that Western-ness is no proof against folly). The tens of millions of mestizos and indios invading the United States? NO! They are the descendants of pre-Columbian Indian slave-states, not of Spain or anywhere else European. Their Christianity (often nominal to begin with) is a veneer over an ancient and, frankly, dark Indian heritage (are your critics familiar with the religious and social customs of pre-Columbian cultures?). “Hispanic” is a grossly misleading euphemism anyway. Orwell would have used it in his essay had he known of it. I actually think I read once that real Spaniards, as white Europeans, are not “Hispanics” as defined by our welfare state. The term lumps together masses of unrelated people from a score of countries, where far more languages than Spanish are spoken. I take it you are using Hispanic as a proxy for our current invaders from Mexico and her neighbors. That is what I am talking about, although most of this could apply to West Indian Hispanics as well—just substitute “African” for “Indian.”

I wonder if any of your correspondents who say that Mexican and Central American mestizos and indios are Westerners have spent any time in Mexico or Central America. Do they know those peoples’ homelands; have they ever seen them at home? In the 1970s I lived and worked in Mexico, in the state of Guanajuato (Fox was the state’s governor in the 1990s), out in the country in an old mining town whose remaining inhabitants were mestizo peasants. The Guanajuato peasantry is mestizo overall. Mexico’s old colonial cities, especially Guanajuato, are Spanish jewels (at least in the old parts) with mostly white elites. Outside the colonial heart of the old city, Guanajuato is not very European at all, but it is less Indian than more southerly states like Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas—increasingly the states sending illegal aliens our way. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras resemble Chiapas. To the limited extent that the Spaniards succeeded in creating a New Spain, they did it in places like Guanajuato. Still, it is a very thin Spanish skin over a beating Indian heart. As an admirer of ancient Rome and also of the conquistadores and imperial Spain, I went to Mexico wanting to believe that there was an unbroken chain of European civilization running from Roman Hispania through mediaeval Spain through the empire Spain made in the New World to modern Mexico and Latin America. I wanted badly to believe that Western civilization had truly brought Latin America into its orbit. I tried to see continuity with ancient Rome and old Spain in the old churches and colonial ruins that I saw. When I became a Roman Catholic, I had even more reason to want to believe that, of course.

I can remember, about ten years after I had worked in Mexico, flying from San Antonio, Texas to Oaxaca. Flying over the altiplano of northern Mexico, looking down at the sere landscape and the geometrically laid-out villages with wide-open fields between them, I thought that must be what Roman Hispania, with its coloniae, looked like (the Mexican altiplano bears a passing resemblance to the altiplano of Old Castile). Maybe so, but I now think the resemblance is almost entirely physical. The culture of rural Mexico is far more Indian than European—almost completely Indian, with telltale traces of Western consumerism sprinkled about. It is the Third World; more like the Philippines or Africa than Spain. Mexico (and I suspect every Latin American country except perhaps Argentina, Uruguay and—to some extent—Chile) is totally unlike the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Those British foundations had European settling populations that mostly displaced the natives, fairness of the displacement notwithstanding. European colonists created European polities that they settled themselves. In Mexico, Peru and elsewhere, there were very large Indian populations. Although many died, the native populations of Mexico, Central America and northern South America always remained a majority, ruled in every case by white oligarchies that rarely mix with the mestizos and indios and have never tried to make Westerners of them. The racial mixing that produced the mestizo happened a long time ago, and did not create a new breed of Westerner in any case. Mexico and other Latin American countries are more like an informal apartheid, with a white upper caste over mixed-race and Indian peasant populations that have little to do with what high culture there is. Those oligarchs are European in heritage (mostly Spaniard, of course, in Mexico), and it is easy, if one thinks only of them, to make the mistake of thinking of Latin America as Western in the sense that the British-heritage nations are. Of course, except for their children who are preferred to Americans by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, et al., it is not white oligarchs who are flooding America!

After years of thinking about it, more travel in Mexico, and watching first California and Texas and now the whole United States transformed by the weight of all those mestizos and indios, I abandoned the illusion that the Spaniards had made a new European nation in the Americas. They had not—in fact, they really didn’t try. Those old Mexican churches I loved are just that—old, and largely empty. Those colonial ruins I wandered around in are ruins. Mexico, in fact as well as law, has turned her back on what Western heritage she has, precisely in order to worship the Other (which isn’t Other in Mexico, although the pretense of the oligarchs pretending to revere those they rule is amusing). Montezuma, a feckless loser, is a national hero because he is an Indian; Cortés, who was not a simple bloodthirsty conqueror, is the ultimate villain because he is a Spaniard. The Hispanics we are talking about are anti-Westerners, foot soldiers of the campaign to sever America from the West and “return” it to Indians. Adding to the outrage is the fact that that the invading mestizos’ and indios’ ancestors were never up here. The reconquista claims are lies, but especially with respect to our uninvited guests from points south. There never was an Aztlán where the American Southwest is today. I pray there never will be.

LA reply:

I am intrigued by Mr. Sutherland’s thoughts about whether the Spanish successfully Westernized the descendants of the pre-Columbian peoples. Over the weekend, in thinking about this topic, I took out my old copy of the abridged version of vols. I-VI of Toynbee’s Study of History, to see if Toynbee considered Latin America a part of Western civilization or a separate civilization. In the entire book, there are only very few, passing references to Latin America. While Toynbee does not include post-conquest, modern Latin America as a separate civilization (he does name four pre-Columbian societies as among the 21 civilizations that have existed), he also never comes right out and says unambiguously that Latin America is part of the West. While he several times remarks that the Spanish conquest destroyed the native civilizations and absorbed Latin America into the West, he also suggests that, while Latin America may be part of the West in a political or material sense (he was writing in the 1930s when there might have been more optimism about Latin America adopting representative government and other Western institutions), it is not culturally a part of the West. But if it is not culturally a part of the West, it is not part of the West, period. As Toynbee says in a different context on page 40, it is not technology or economy or even political institutions that ultimately define a civilization, but a “spiritual flame.” In any event, from the remarkable absence of discussion of post-conquest Latin America in the book, the main impression you get is that, whether or not Toynbee thinks Latin America is Western, he considers it to be of very little or no civilizational importance.

On the word “Hispanic,” I don’t think there’s anything sinister or improper about it. It has always meant Western hemisphere people of Spanish language and culture; it has never meant Spanish. Even if Mexican indios are not fully culturalized to Spanish-based culture of the Mexican white elites, they still speak Spanish and are part of a Spanish-speaking society, so they are Hispanic. Of course the term encompasses a wide variation of meaning, but what word would Mr. Sutherland use instead?

In fact just this moment I “got” it (I admit I am slow—I don’t get something until I get it.) “Hispanic” is objectionable precisely because it leads so many Americans to assume that all those indios and Mestizos are in fact “Western.” And they make this assumption to a large extent on the basis of the same kind of false syllogism that they use with words like “Spanish” and “Christian.” They hear the word “Hispanic,” Hispanic denotes Spanish, Spain is part of Europe, et voilà, the Hispanics are all Westerners! I have seen conservative think-tank types state in all seriousness that the immigrants coming to America are “Iberians,” and that they are “white,” based on the fact that they are “Hispanic.” Such is the power of words to conceal as well as to reveal reality.

So, yes, we need more precise language to differentiate the minority of Latin Americans who are Western or quasi-Western, from the vast majority who are predominantly non-Western.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 03, 2006 02:10 PM | Send

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