Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States
© 2014 Felipe Fernández-Armesto
Spain disappears from American history books following the Spanish-American war, in which the tired old empire was given a sound thrashing and retreated from the hemisphere, but Spanish America isn’t a thing of the past. Its heritage is older than English America, not only because the Spanish arrived first but because Spanish colonialism fused itself with the peoples and culture which it found. Our America is a history of Spanish America, principally Mexico, delivered from the rare perspective of a Spaniard raised partially in England. While not nearly as sweeping as Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in the United States, it offers abounding detail on the Anglo-Spanish struggle for power, first around the Gulf Coast and then later in the southwest as English colonies developed their own identity and ambition. It is problematic, in that a Spanish Brit spends the book lecturing a American audience on what being ‘American’ is, but the perspective is unusual and at times refreshing.
Fernández-Armesto examines American history not from the east to the west — which is how, in fact, the history of the United States as a government unfolded — but from south to north. He sees the United States as more colonial than European, and interprets affairs like the Revolution and the Civil War as part of general new-world struggles against colonial power. He sees the South’s bid for independence as very kin to Mexico’s own battles between centrists and decentralists, for instance . As mentioned, Our America’s focus is Mexico and the Southwest, with Cubans and Puerto Ricans receiving scant attention at the very end. Our America is thus more a history of “New Spain” — a label which, prior to the collapse of the Spanish empire during the Napoleonic wars, encompassed both areas. If Fernández-Armesto actually hailed from Mexico, this could be called a localist history of the United States, rather like a history of the US delivered from the perspective of the South. The chief weakness of this book is that the author confuses the United States and ‘America’ when he argues that the United States began with Spanish America. While the Euro-American experience as a whole began with Spanish exploration, the ‘United States’ is a government formed by thirteen States along the eastern seaboard of North America, ground never trod by the Spanish. He also attributes European success in the Americas largely to the ‘stranger effect’ — an effect which included hospitality given to visiting strangers, respectful awe of travelers from afar, and the inclusion of them in native government to swing local battles for power one way or another. While it’s a factor to take into account, he completely writes off the ‘guns, germs, and steel’ triad in favor of this social element.
As a general history of Latin America, I think Harvest of Empire superior; but the amount of detail given to Spain and England’s colonial wrangling, and later the American conquest of the southwest, makes it a book of note. It’s certainly gotten my interest in the Spanish colonial period fired up!
American Colonies, Allen Taylor. Colonial history of Spanish, French, English, Dutch, and even Russian America.
The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America, James Wilson
Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, Juan Gonzales