What are the ideologies and ethnocentric practices that give rise to and perpetuate oppression and discrimination towards Hispanic children and families in the episode of the PBS series Latino Americans titled Foreigners on Their Own Land?
The Public Broadcasting Service series Latino Americans presents over the course of six hours the history of the experience of Mexicans and Mexican Americans families in territories once occupied solely by indigenous tribes, then by conquering Spanish invaders, and, finally, by whites of European ancestry in pursuit of the lands and riches these territories offered. Episode One of this series, Foreigners in their Own Land, is, obviously, the introductory section and, as such, provides a sweeping, broad introduction to the series that will follow. Extrapolating with respect to ideologies and ethnocentric “practices” that gave rise to and perpetuated prejudicial behavior towards Mexicans and Mexican Americans from this single episode, then, would represent an exercise of questionable academic validity. That being the assignment, however, what follows is an attempt at providing a substantive response to the student’s question.
The title of this episode, Foreigners in their Own Land, is intended to portray Mexicans and Mexican American immigrants through the prism of a history of systemic discrimination – a perfectly legitimate exercise insofar as the policy and practice of Manifest Destiny was implicitly racial in nature, suggesting as its proponents did that the expansion of white settlers was essential for the future security and economic viability of the emerging nation and that the expansion was inherently justified by geopolitical prerogatives. That racial discrimination and oppression was a direct outgrowth of that practice was somewhat inevitable given the racial distinctions made by virtually all ethnic groups around the world then and, seemingly, forever. The PBS episode, however, focuses on the southwest territories of the current United States and the plight of Mexicans as American settlers advanced upon that expansive region – a region that once, as the show notes, accounted for “a full half of what had once been Mexico.”
Foreigners in their own Land opens and closes with a brief history of one particular individual: Captain John Seguin (1806-1890). This focus on Captain Seguin’s experiences as a Mexican who strongly identified with the newly-established territory of Texas is instructive for its illustration of how one prominent individual was treated. Few Americans, especially those of Anglo-Saxon heritage, know, or would presumably care to know, about this admirable individual’s character. Seguin, the show points out, fought heroically alongside Davey Crockett, James Bowies, and other heroes of American/Texan independence. Seguin was the scion of a prominent Mexican family in San Antonio who would become mayor of that city and, later, a senator from the Republic of Texas during that territory’s interregnum between Mexican and U.S. possession. In short, he was an American success story. He would die unknown to much of the American public, however, precisely because he didn’t fit into the prejudicial mold that Americans craved as they fought to expand and legitimize their growing nation.
The point the PBS series was making, then, was that the ideology of white American and predominantly Protestant expansionism was pursued at the expense of legitimate Mexican/Spanish history, much of which was heavily Catholic and obviously overwhelmingly Latino. Territories once the province of Mexico became the possession of the United States of America. The peoples who occupied those territories, and who were overwhelmingly of Mexican descent, were immediately subjected to white rule that disadvantaged them and that made them, as the title suggests, foreigners in their own land. Treated as second-class citizens at best, as unwanted interlopers at worst, those early experiences of Mexicans in the United States would presage the informal institutionalization of racial discrimination that was a major component of U.S. history. The irony – if this be ironic – was the treatment of the indigenous population that was neither of Spanish nor Anglo-Saxon heritage. In short, the Native population that was there before Spanish conquistadors invaded and imposed European rule while exploiting the region’s mineral wealth. As the episode shows historian David Montejano observing, “The [Mexican] landholding elite insisted on being seeing as European or Spanish. Certainly they saw themselves as very different from the Christianized Indians, the Natives who were their servants.” In that sense, one could, conceivably, suggest that the lesson here was one of ‘what goes around comes around.’ That, however, would not be charitable.