In August of 1492, Christopher Columbus's three caravels, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, departed from the port of Palos, Spain. After a near mutiny, the fleet arrived in the Bahamas on October 12. The date is officially celebrated in the United States as Columbus Day and in the Spanish-speaking world—and among some Latinos—as Día de la Raza (Day of Our Race) in honor of indigenous peoples and their contributions to all aspects of national and Hispanic cultures. The journey was made at a time when Spain was expanding its colonial borders and looking to invigorate a stagnant economy with resources from unexplored lands. During that same year, Muslims and Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula or forced to convert to Catholicism under the Inquisition. Spain saw itself as a steadfast upholder of the Catholic faith and a force for the saving of souls through Christian evangelism. Following Columbus, a series of Spanish explorers and missionaries surveyed and settled parts of what is today southern and southwestern America; the missionaries both colonized the land and converted, often forcibly, the indigenous populations to Christianity. In so doing, they imposed a different language and worldview on the Americas.
American History and Latino History
Q: When does the history of Latinos in the United States begin?
A: If the starting point of the United States's history is its Revolutionary Warfrom 1775 to 1783, it must be noted that the number of Hispanics in the thirteen colonies that fought for independence was minuscule. If, on the other hand, American history is charted from the first interactions of Europeans with Native Americans on the North American continent, then the presence of Latinos in territories that constitute the current United States precedes the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. When the Pilgrims anchored in 1620, Spanish settlements, built by conquistadors and missionaries, were already established in Florida and the southwestern regions. The interaction between the Spaniards and the Western Hemisphere's native populations lasted for hundreds of years and has had dramatic influences on the nation's history. Spanish colonization throughout the Americas united many pre-existing cultures and is ultimately represented in the sizable Latino population that the United States contains in the twenty-first century.
Q: What was Spain's attitude toward colonization in the sixteenth century?
A: At the time Columbus set sail, the Iberian Peninsula was concluding La Reconquista (the Reconquest), a centuries-long battle to regain territory from the Islamic Moors and a simultaneous purging of all religions but the strictest of Roman Catholicism—even though the three major Western religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, had coexisted in the region for centuries. The marriage of Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabel of Castile, which had joined those two regions, also combined their governance into a central authority that defined the nation's "regained" lands in religious and military terms. Concurrent with Columbus's crossing the Atlantic in search of a new route to the Indies and his "discovery" of a gigantic continent previously unknown to Europeans, edicts of expulsion were promulgated against the Jewish and Islamic communities. The last Moorish stronghold, Granada, fell in 1492.
Spain's colonies across the Atlantic served many purposes. First, they were lands rich in gold, minerals, and other natural resources. Second, they were populated by "heathens" ripe for receiving the expansionist Christian vision. At first the Crown held tight economic and political control. With time, the colonies grew more independent and developed stronger forms of self-rule, though the model for self-governance continued to be that of the Old World.
Q: Who were some of the most significant Spanish conquistadors and explorers?
A: In 1513, the Spanish governor of Puerto Rico landed in Florida, and by 1565 Saint Augustine, the oldest permanent European settlement in what was to become the United States, had been established by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.
Hernando de Soto explored much of Florida as well, then continued into what are now the states of Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama. Crossing the Mississippi River in 1541, he ventured farther into Louisiana and Texas.
Among the most significant and ill-fated of Spanish explorers, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca also began his journey in Florida. A member of the failed expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez, which shipwrecked off the coast of Florida in 1528, he traveled for the better part of a decade, along with other survivors, coming across Indian tribes and passing for a healer in order to save his life. When he returned to Spain he published La Relación (1542), known in English as The Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition, in which he tells of his incredible journey from Florida to the Southwest and back, passing along the Gulf of Mexico. Because his narrative was written in Spain a long time after the experience, the narrative has been contested as a trustworthy historical document.
Explorers of the southwestern territory, especially New Mexico and Arizona, included Fray (Friar) Marcos de Niza, who set out from Mexico City in 1538. His quest, which ended in disaster when his three hundred men were killed by the Zuni, was to find the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was inspired by de Niza and, from 1540 through 1542, explored the central and southwestern parts of the present-day United States, reaching as far as Kansas. A third explorer of what is now New Mexico was Captain Juan de Oñate, whose expedition began in 1595 and interacted significantly with the Pueblos. Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, of Italian descent, founded the first mission in Arizona, calling it Nuestra Señora de Dolores.
Juan Bautista de Anza explored the more northerly portions of the continent, preceding Lewis and Clark by crossing the Rocky Mountains in the mid-eighteenth century and exploring as far west as San Francisco. Other explorers included Juan Crespi, Fray Francisco Palou, and Fray Junípero Serra. The last was an evangelist who established almost two dozen missions in California.Collins Q & A: Latino History and Culture
Excerpted from Latino History and Culture by Ilan Stavans
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