Review – El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America by Carrie Gibson

When I was at school in the 1950s, we were told in geography lessons that the United States of America had no colonies. Even if one accepts the 13 original British colonies, this neglects the remaining 37 states. No one never seemed to wonder about the origins of names like Nevada, Arizona, Montana, Florida etc., which had originally been Spanish then Mexican before being seized by the US government. This book looks at the history of North America from the point of view of its Spanish speaking inhabitants and makes a useful counterbalance to the normal Anglo-centric historiography

The origins of Texas were particularly myth-laden to those of us who got the story of the Alamo from Walt Disney, Fess Parker and John Wayne. There is no contemporary evidence that Davy Crocket ever wore a coon-skin hat with a fur tail at the back. The reality is much more prosaic. If you look at a historical atlas, you will see that Texas was a state with a very high proportion of slaves. Mexico, of which Texas was the northern province, abolished slavery in 1829, much to the disgust of the Anglo settlers who had emigrated from the USA with their slaves. The freedom that these settlers wanted, and fought for at the Alamo and subsequent battles, was the freedom to own slaves.

The book clearly links the growth of the USA to the Caribbean and sees the colonisation of the Mississippi valley as an extension of the slave system of the British West Indies. Similarly, slavery was key to the various attempts by the US government to grab Cuba from Spain and explains why, after the abolition of slavery, they lost interest for 50 years.

The section on the musical influence of Cuba and Puerto Rico on US popular music is particularly well written and I spent a very enjoyable evening on Spotify and YouTube tracking down many of the songs of which the book speaks.

Then there is the little known story of the Puerto Rican fight for independence, involving a protracted urban guerrilla struggle, to add context to the resentment felt when President Trump’s contribution to the recent hurricane  relief was to throw toilet rolls.

But, above all, given the importance of Latino labour to the USA, the book demonstrates how illogical it is to divide the continent in the way it is and provides the background to the chorus of Tom Russell’s song “If Uncle Sam sends all the illegals home, who is gonna build your wall”.

The book has an attention to detail without getting bogged down making  it both useful to the specialist and a good general read.

Steve Cushion