Saturday, July 30, 2005

Guest book review by Raymundo Eli Rojas

Hey folks, this just ran in the Pueblo Chieftan's magazine "Caminos" - It's not online, so I thought I'd send it out.

Identity crises in New Mexico
‘Blood purity’ spurs debate over heritage
by Raymundo Elí Rojas


In a movie by Mexican comedian Mario Moreno “Cantinflas,” he meets a Mexican man who, though brown and looking very much Mexican, tells Cantinflas that his family line is “pure Spanish blood.” Cantinflas answers with his usually comedic response ridiculing those who say their descendants never interbred with indigenous people.

However, for those growing up in the United States, there is often a response by some Hispanics that their family has never mixed with indigenous races.

Such is the focus of John M. Nieto-Phillips book The Language of Blood: The Making of Spanish-American Identity in New Mexico, 1880s-1930s (University of New Mexico Press). He focuses on the myth of “blood purity,” and how and why generations of New Mexicans insisted that they were descendants from the first Spanish explorers and settlers of the region. However, rather than ridicule this belief with a Cantinflian responded, Nieto-Phillips explores how this belief came about and its relation with New Mexico gaining its statehood.

In an exquisite exploration of race, color, politics, anti-Mexican sentiment, and white studies, Nieto-Phillips molds the myth into an interesting study of a populations' response to racism.

Before Hawaii, no other state when it was admitted to the union, had a non-white majority. New Mexico having more indigenous and people of Mexican decent served as a tremendous burden to gaining statehood. The U.S. Congress of the late 1800s and early 1900s saw this racial mixture a sign of being to close to the enemy, in this case Mexico, and as a sign that the citizens could not be “trusted to govern themselves.” Furthermore, the fact that most of the state spoke Spanish did not help the New Mexico’s statehood dreams.

As a response to this, some New Mexican, especially the elite nuevomexicanos took to denying any indigenous “blood” in themselves and
attesting they were of “pure Spanish blood.” Nieto-Phillips shows how the roots of this belief can be traced to Medieval times in Spain where any hint of Jewish or Moorish blood automatically expelled you from the “sangre pura” category.

This was relayed to the New World. The author shows how nuevomexicano census takers, writing reports back to Spain, would exaggerate the numbers of Blacks, indigenous, and meztizos as low, but would exaggerate the numbers of “pure Spaniards” as high.

Nieto-Phillips includes chapter on how state histories, tourism, and even the white establishment took part in promoting this myth.

Looking at documents from the Santa Fe Railroad’s advertisement for New Mexico to history written by anthropologists and state historians, Language of Blood shows the hispanophilia that ran through the nation at the time. They promoted New Mexico, and other parts of the Southwest, as Spanish, hardly ever Mexican, and certainly not indigenous. Looking through Congressional records and legislation, Nieto-Phillips shows
the racism of the time. Senator Calhoun states:

[W]e have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race — the free white race. To incorporate Mexico would be the first instance of the kin do incorporating an Indian race…Ours, sir is the Government of a white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish-America are to be traced on an equality with the white race. That error destroyed the social arrangement which formed the basis of society.

Language of Blood shows for all the exaggeration of their Spanish decent, the ploy did not work with U.S. society because of its own racism toward the Spanish and the belief of the “Black Legend” that held “Spanish exploits in the New World were particularly atrocious when compared to those of other colonial powers.”

Language of Blood is an excellent study into the intersectionality of race, color, and language that so shaped an identity in New Mexico.

© Raymundo Elí Rojas 2005

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