February 15, 2008

Commentary:

Time to heal the wounds of the U.S.-Mexico War on the 160th anniversary of its ending

By Yolanda Chávez Leyva

Feb. 2 marked the 160th anniversary of the end of the U.S.-Mexico War, and its consequences continue to shape the relationships between the two countries, as well as race relations within our nation.

The historical legacy of the war is clear. The United States gained and Mexico lost an immense and valuable territory, complete with coastal ports and rich natural resources. Our nation, successful in its territorial conquest, moved ahead in its quest to become a world power.

The incorporation of what is now the Southwestern United States following the war intensified tensions over slavery and freedom that led to the bloody Civil War a little more than a decade later.

And the relationship between the United States and Mexico became more strained as Mexican leaders increasingly feared further U.S. territorial aggression well into the twentieth century.

What’s more, as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, more than 100,000 Mexican citizens suddenly found themselves in the United States, involuntarily. Here, their language and culture came under attack. Women lost rights that had been guaranteed to them under Mexican law. Anti-Mexican violence raged, and Mexican people lost land through both legal and illegal means.

Above all, the war was a big step toward making Mexican-heritage people “the enemy.”

The psychological and spiritual assaults continue today, though we often don’t realize where these assaults historically derive from. They are personal, and they sting.

As a writer who often explores border and immigration issues, I have come to accept hate mail as “part of the job.” Such letters often contain references to my “not being an American” and exhortations for me to talk to “my” president in Mexico. But I’m a U.S. citizen teaching American history in the United States.

When do I, and others like me, get to be treated as full citizens?

Today, when I hear politicians trolling for votes by attacking peaceful people crossing the border, I fear for my country’s soul.

And when I see indigenous people in Texas, California, and Arizona who have been on this continent for millennia lose their land rights so a wall can be built to keep out other people whose roots go back thousands of year, I fear for my country’s soul.

The anniversary of the end of the U.S.-Mexico War calls on us to take courageous action in looking at ourselves. It calls on us to ask difficult questions, as well.

How do we all work to regain our humanity and our connections with each other?

How do we acknowledge the violence upon which this nation was built?

How do we stop the hatred and fear?

How do we heal the wounds that divide us?

Let’s begin by honestly acknowledging our painful history, including the war of conquest that ended 160 years ago.

No wounds heal properly if they are not first washed out. It’s long past time to clean this one.

Yolanda Chávez Leyva is a historian specializing in Mexican-American and border history. She lives in Texas. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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