Thursday, February 18, 2021

A Little Dignity Goes a Long Way


                             From Jalisco to Santa Monica, Gloria, Candida, and Esther Gonzalez  


     After spending nearly 30 years in education, I came to the conclusion most Americans don’t give a hoot about history, whether it’s U.S. history or even their own family history. I’m not saying Americans don’t like reading or watching good stories about history, character-driven narratives, rip-roaring tales, blockbuster books and novels, like Hamilton, or Ken Burns’ Civil War series. I think these stories engage us because, well, they’re good stories, but not because we see ourselves in them.  

    Maybe it’s that the earliest English settlers came here as refugees, escaping poverty, malnutrition, and exploitation. Nobody wants a relationship with those at the bottom. So, our education system taught us they came to these shores to flee religious persecution: the pilgrims, the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock and all that. Sounds romantic, heroic, but is that the true history?

     Defense of religion is stuff of myth. It turns the poor and landless into saints and cultural icons, gets them into history books. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying religious persecution wasn’t part of the English migrant equation. I’m just saying, personally, I don’t believe founding of the colonies was “all” that early American historians made it out to be.

     Even if we slip a few thousand miles to the south and look at the Spanish "discovery" and conquest of the Americas (and I don’t need to rehash all the romantic myths about it) but I know, from studying in Spain, most of the Spanish and Portuguese who arrived in the so-called New World were men at the bottom of the heap, soldiers and the clergy, two professions that drew from the poorest part of society and kept young men from starving. Unfortunately, women didn’t have those options to flee dire circumstances. They stayed behind and starved. The majority of Europeans to the Americas were fleeing poverty and starvation, no matter what the history books say. They were looking for work.

     So, if my premises are even partly true, American history is the history of “poor” people who, without the knowledge and culture of indigenous societies, would not have lasted on these lands more than a few winters.  When Cortez had his crews burn their boats to stop his men from mutiny and returning to Europe, he knew he could not survive without help from his Nahuatl-speaking allies in the Americas.

     Once the land was tamed, then came the tradesmen and the rulers, who created their own histories. Unlike monarchs and aristocrats who painstakingly trace their family lineage and history to pass down their legacies (another word for land, money, and the power to keep it) to posterity, the poor, and today’s working-class, have no such inheritances, no such legacies, and little to hand down to their descendants, except maybe a few good stories about grandma and grandpa. I’d guess most Americans don’t even know their great-grandparents’ names.

      We could argue, today, many baby-boomers inherit homes and savings from their hard-working, thrifty WWII-era parents, maybe even as much as a million dollars in property, but consider, a million dollars today in Los Angeles, if you’re lucky, can get you a small, two-bedroom, one-bath stucco home in the suburbs out towards the beach.

     No matter how you cut it, these folks who have inherited from their parents, are still the working-class, and are but a medical calamity, or a natural disaster away from financial ruin, as many found out during the pandemic.

     How do most Americans today compare to the monarchs and aristocrats, whose names, today, are hidden behind names like Citi-bank, Google, Microsoft, Exon, Shell, Yahoo, Amazon, Walmart, Chase Bank, names we once recognized as Doheny, Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Bezos, Gates, etc.

     Now, I’m not talking about rich versus poor, or about the accumulation of wealth. That’s a whole other topic. I’m just thinking about how history plays into all of this. For example, once a family reaches a certain societal position, history matters. It’s always mattered. When I talk about influence and power, I’m not talking about the people who work 50-60 hours a week and pull down have a million-dollars a-year. In my book, that’s not rich. That’s just well-off. When I think of today’s monarchs and aristocrats, I think of names like Jobs and Coke. You get my drift.

     As a teacher of American literature, coming from a working-class background, I always wondered, when I researched historical books or novels, why, it seemed, the powerful always seemed to marry first-and- second cousins, but they condemned the poor and working-class to hell for even thinking about doing the same thing.

     Then, I remember reading about John Jay and other American political elite. They married within the family for one reason, to keep land and money in the family. That’s why so many of the same names keep popping up when talking about Europe’s kingdoms, like the Hapsburgs, or in many cases a last name wasn’t even needed. It was enough, to say, marry a James, Edward, Louis, Carlos, Felipe, and Isabel, their daughters and sons being passed around from one throne to another, the family legacy protected, along with the riches. The silver-lining was it also gave the families dignity.

     In fact, I’d stick my neck out to say, monarchs, aristocrats, and anyone who had a large stable of peasants, or employees, benefited from keeping their workers ignorant of family history. To learn you descended from una familia buena, or you were a product of good-breeding, bien educado, would give you a certain pride, the last thing a duke, lord, or hacendado needed in his subjects. Often, it was just the opposite; many peasants were told they came from peasant stock, and they could never rise above their ranks, which could become a self-fulfilling prophecy and create a caste system to keep a strong work force intact.

     In my own family, I recall a hesitation to reveal anything about the past. Who knows what it might uncover? If anything, we heard about ancestors who didn’t always live the best lives. Maybe there was crime and punishment back there some place, or children out of wedlock, and loose men and women, for sure, a lot of boozers, as if the aristocracy didn’t carry its own blasphemous baggage. They had the power to keep it out of the books.

     For many working-class people in the U.S., ignorance of one’s history is a badge of honor. It allows one to start over, create a new persona, and a new path forward, to bring out that independent, cowboy spirit, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, don’t whine when life throws you a curveball. The past is dead and gone. But, are they just fooling themselves?

     From my experience, nobody succeeds on his own or her own, no matter how much we deny our past. Everybody has gotten help, whether it’s an encouraging word from a parent or teacher, a job-lead from a friend, a loan from a college financial aid department, or a grade from a teacher you know you didn’t really deserve. No matter how much we tell ourselves that hard-work and a can-do attitude will get us through anything, “No man is an island," and it really does "take a village."

     That’s why monarchs and aristocrats knew their history and were cognizant of legacies, to pass their stories, no matter how fictionalized, down to the descendants, even as they made sure to keep their subjects blind of their own histories.

     Now, we can dig as deeply as we want into the past, and sure, we might discover dirt clods, but there will be plenty of diamonds right there alongside them. As a friend once told me when he learned he’d descended from the first families to settle California, “As kid, I thought I was just another Mexican, like teachers and kids had told me. When I learned about my family history, it changed the way I saw myself and my family. I had pride in myself.”           

     As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” same for those who don’t know their country’s or their own history. A little dignity goes a long way.

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