Erika Lee

In her presidential speech before the annual OAH conference in 2006, then-OAH President Vicki Ruiz bemoaned the fact that “despite a florescence of scholarship on the Spanish borderlands over the past fifteen years, U.S. historians frequently give both the region and the era no more than a passing glance.” The erasure of Latine history from U.S. history was both structural and political, she explained. There was only “finite time and space” in typical U.S. history survey courses to devote to the colonial era, and “understandable emphasis” was given to the thirteen British colonies. But it was also political in that the long-standing “Black Legend,” which contrasted virtuous English families against rapacious Spanish conquistadors was a popular historical narrative used to justify U.S. settler colonialism and the conquest of Mexican lands under the guise of U.S. “Manifest Destiny.” As a result, the diverse histories of pre-United States settlements in the Spanish borderlands had been willfully erased. And this historical amnesia also impacted how the histories of Spanish-speaking peoples; individuals of Latin American origin were often considered tangential to the U.S. both in the past and the present. “Contrary to popular media depictions of Latinos as people who arrived the day before yesterday, there exists a rich layering of nationalities, generations, and experiences. Borrowing from Cuban nationalist José Martí who dreamed of a “new America,” “our America,” Ruiz forcefully concluded her speech that “Nuestra América es historia americana. Our America is American history.”  

As the many essays in the current issue of The American Historian make clear, a lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same since Ruiz first insisted that American historians pay more attention to Latine history. As Robert E. May points out in his essay, Latines in U.S. social studies and history classes remain forgotten, invisible, and dismissed. He argues that conventional assumptions that American expanded westward are partly to blame for the erasure of Latines in these courses. But he also points out how our outsized focus on westward expansion has predetermined “the very framing of the nation’s historical narrative.” May suggests that we pay equal attention to the U.S.’s southward expansion and reorient our understandings of U.S. territorial expansion through the Louisiana Purchase and the U.S.-Mexico War as both southward and westward expansions. This reframing would better reveal the centrality of Hispanic/Latines in U.S. history and might better engage Latine students today in the study of history, he writes.

Delia Fernández-Jones’ essay also seeks to remedy two kinds of historical erasure: the lack of research on Latine women and the lack of research on Latines in the Midwest. Drawing upon a long tradition of community-engaged research, Fernández-Jones finds that erasure came from both inside and outside of the Latine community she studies in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Even the women I talked to, at times, minimized their own influence in founding this community.” Official record keeping continued to privilege elite, white male actors while patriarchal gender norms served to silence and discourage the women. Fernández-Jones is working to restore Mexican and Puerto Rican women to their rightful places in history. She shows how their work, their family bonds, their networks were the driving force behind migration to the area as well as to finding employment, housing, and welcome in the new city. 

Claudia Holguín Mendoza, Jorge Leal, and Julie M. Weise share their experience developing the bilingual course “Latinos in America” that “engages a broad range of students in interpreting historical primary sources in Spanish and Spanglish. Building upon the idea that students with some high-school and college-level Spanish instruction along with Spanish heritage language speakers could engage in “high-level analysis of Spanish and Spanglish primary sources and original texts” that would greatly enrich historical learning, interpretation, and analysis, but also had the “radical potential to reorient classroom power dynamics.” Both scholarship in the field of Spanish as Heritage Language education and the authors’ classroom experience illustrate how a bilingual approach to teaching Latinx Studies “works against racist narratives and class-based hierarchies that have expressed themselves linguistically in both the United States and Latin America.” Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and OpenOregon, all of us can find primary sources, lesson plans, worksheets, and even sample assessments are available alongside instructor-facing videos at teachspanglish.org. 

As a scholar of immigration and race, I have experienced the same kinds of erasures that many of the authors in this issue describe and welcome the insights they have shared about their own teaching and research. May’s essay on the myth of westward expansion reminds us to consider and confront the many other myths that have shaped American historical teaching and writing. And that continue to shape public opinion today. As I write this column, NPR is reporting on a new poll it conducted that finds about half of Americans say the U.S. is experiencing an “invasion at the southern border.” Having just written about what I call the “Immigration Myth” in American history for a new volume tackling some of the biggest legends and lies in our past, I am particularly dismayed by these results. But Fernández-Jones’ and Holguín Mendoza, Leal, and Weise remind us of the importance of new community-based research and innovative bilingual pedagogy that can continue the work of correcting the historical record and challenging structural inequalities in our educational system. I am grateful and hopeful. 

Let me end by sharing a few of the digital teaching resources that I have found most helpful in teaching Latine history and immigration history.

1) Latine-themed lesson plans from the Zinn Education Project

2) Timeline, lesson plans, video profiles, and other educational resources from the PBS series “Latino Americans” (2013)

3) Oral histories and artifacts pertaining to the Bracero Program (1942-1964) from the Bracero History Archive

4) Mapping Violence – recovering the lost and obscured cases of racial violence in Texas from 1900 to 1930.

At the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota (which I direct), we’ve been creating, sharing, and preserving digital stories with recent immigrants and refugees through our Immigrant Stories project. Our collection has nearly 400 stories representing over 50 different groups. Users can search by ethnic groups, for example, those who identify as Mexican.

Our free digital story-making website allows anyone to write, create, edit, and share their own digital story all within our website! We also have free curricula to help high school, college, ELL learners, and organizations make their own stories. It is now available in 7 languages. Our free 140-page comprehensive “Teaching Immigration” curriculum for grades 8-Adult on why and how people immigrate to the US. Created with The Advocates for Human Rights, these lesson plans include fact sheets, maps, and in-class active learning worksheets. An interactive timeline (and podcast) developed with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs highlights the U.S.’s long history of deportation.

Developed in partnership with the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS), the #ImmigrationSyllabus is a major educational resource and website including major topics, questions, readings, and links to primary sources that offer timely historical perspective on today’s contested immigration debate. It is being used in over 100 countries. The IEHS also developed the “Teach Immigration History” website with the University of Texas. 

Author

Erika Lee is Regents Professor of History and Asian American Studies, Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, and President of the Organization of American Historians. She is the author of four award-winning books including America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in America and The Making of Asian America.