Get to Know the Hispanics Around You Foreign Languages Department
Salem State University

Some historical background

Hispanics have been part of the current US territory since before the US existed, in great part because the US has acquired lands which belonged to Spain or Mexico which had Hispanics in them, from Texas and the entire Southwest, to Puerto Rico. [Wikipedia: Spanish in the United States] Many Hispanics have also immigrated from lands where unjust economic and/or social policies supported by the US have resulted in many people being compelled to leave their homeland. These are things that we should not forget. But let us go back 500 years to understand the full story.

America at the time of Columbus

The past is essential to understanding the present. And the story of Hispanics in the U.S. starts with the largest story of migration in history. The continent that we call America or the Americas (and in the Spanish-speaking world America by and large is the name of a continent, not of the United States of America), was populated by anywhere from 60 to 110 million people with a native Amerindian population 500 years ago when the monarchs of Castile financed Columbus's exploratory trip west and started one of the greatest human upheavals in history. [Wikipedia: America] [Wikipedia: Castile] [Wikipedia: Use of the word American]

Only about 10 million of these native Amerindian inhabitants--their descendents often known now as Amerindians, Indians or Native Americans--lived north of the Rio Grande, with a much larger number group living in what's now Mexico, Central America, and the Andean region of South America. They spoke hundreds of different languages and their level of development was very uneven, from complex civilizations, such as those of the Aztecs and the Mayans, and some living as Stone Age nomads. [Wikipedia: Indigenous peoples of the Americas] [Wikipedia: Spanish colonization of the Americas] [Wikipedia: Population history of American indigenous peoples]


Hispania 2000 years ago.
The Iberian peninsula (present day Spain and Portugal), the Roman province of Hispania a thousand years earlier, was a highly militarized society in the 1400's. The peninsular kingdtoms had just completed the final expulsion of Muslim Arabs and North Africans ("Moors") from the peninsula they conquered in 771AD, the Reconquista, an enterprise which took almost 700 years to complete, and was ideally posed for a colonizing enterprise as the one they undertook in the Americas. England, on the other hand, would not be ready for such an enterprise until a hundred years later. [Wikipedia: Reconquista]

When Columbus first sailed West, European borders, states and languages were not what they are now. In the Iberian Peninsula there were two "Crowns", Castile and Aragon, each of which incorporated more than one kingdom or territory (the Basque Country, for example, was loosely associated with Castile), plus two additional kingdoms: Portugal and Navarre. Several languages were spoken in the Christian north, all but Basque being languages descended from Latin (Romance languages): Galician-Portuguese, Castilian, Aragonese, and Catalan. In the newly reconquered lands to the south (Andalusia), the Moorish influence was still very strong in many respects and other Romance languages as well as Arabic were spoken.

In the 1500's, the Spanish monarch managed to reunify all of Hispania, even Portugal, though this kingdom would manage to get away in the 1600's never to return to the fold. The Catholic Church played a large role in this unifying enterprise, as they would also in the colonizing of the new lands overseas. This religious zeal was also expressed in the forceful expulsion from Spanish territory of Muslims and Jews who refused to convert to Christianity not long after the Columbus's trip.


The colonization of the Americas by Europeans had devastating consequences for the native inhabitants. Between the diseases that were new to the continent brought by the invaders--Europe itself had just gotten over a 100 year period of plagues and epidemics that had killed at least two thirds of its population--and the enslavement and massacres at the hands of the Spanish, by the end of the sixteenth century, a hundred years after the first 'encounter', only about two million (out of at least 60 million!) native people remained. (In North America too, the Amerindian population would decrease by a similar percentage at least as fast.)

In a period of 100 years Spain had explored and laid claim to most of the continent, including much of what is now the U.S. South and West. Portugal colonized another part of South America, the coast of what is now Brazil.

Mestizo woman
Spanish colonization was rather different from later English, or British, colonization of North America. They had different systems of colonization and different methods of subjugation. While the English were primarily interested in grabbing land, the Spanish in addition had a mandate to incorporate the land's inhabitants into their society, something which was achieved by religious conversion and sexual unions which produced a new 'race' of mestizos, a mixture of Europeans and indigenous peoples. mestizos form the majority of the population in Mexico, Central America, and much of South America. Racial mixing or miscegenation, after all, was something that the Spanish and Portuguese had been accustomed to during the hundreds of years of contact with Arabs and North Africans.

Similarly, later on, when African slaves were introduced into the Caribbean basin region, unions between them and Spaniards produced a population of mulatos, who are a majority of the population in the Caribbean islands (the Antilles) (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico), as well as other areas of the Caribbean region (Colombia, Venezuela and parts of the Central American Caribbean coast). mestizos and mulatos may not have always have been first class citizens in their countries, but they were never disowned in the way the outcomes of unions of Europeans and Native Americans were in the British colonies, where interracial marriages were taboo and one drop of Black or Amerindian blood was enough to make the person 'impure'.

Anglo America and Hispanic America

From a political point of view, English and Spanish colonization also differed greatly. Thus for instance, the Spanish empire, the largest empire the world had ever seen, was a affair of the State (the crown)with huge bureaucracies, whereas the English relied on rich individuals who financed colonies and joint stock companies who ran the colonies and transported people such as the Pilgrims, but also indentured servants (including kidnapped children and convicted criminals), who were half of the population of the thirteen British colonies at the time of independence. In the English colonies land speculation was the norm whereas in the Spanish empire, land speculation was not possible since the laws prevented the break up of family holdings. This, of course, contrasted with the native system of land use everywhere in the Americas, in which private ownership of the land was not even possible.

Spanish Empire, 1700. Encarta Encyclopedia © Microsoft Co.

Colonias europeas
After 300 years of conquest and colonization, the Americas were split into two major regions: Anglo America, the largest part of which--the United States--had just become independent from Great Britain, and Spanish America, which was about to become independent from Spain but would fail to remain united. Spanish America had more resources, but it became fragmented, weak, and dominated by outside powers, whereas the United States expanded and became powerful and managed to stay free of outside control.

Thus, an uneven relationship resulted between the United States and Latin America since that time. It was almost inevitable that the brash U.S. would take advantage of the weakness of its southern neighbors and from the beginning it was U.S. policy--what came to be known as "manifest destiny "--to expand the new nation by taking as much Latin American land as possible and by controlling and dominating those parts of the continent which weren't taken over outright. [Wikipedia: Anglo-America] [Wikipedia: Manifest Destiny]

Here are some highlights of what the next hundred years would bring:

In 1819, soon after the Louisiana purchase from France in 1803, the U.S. put pressure on weak Spain, which was at the time in the middle of fighting wars of independence all over the hemisphere--and which the U.S. was not too interested in seeing succeed--, to give up what's now Florida plus parts of Alabama and Mississippi, and all territory north of present-day California, for the promise of salvaging other parts of their empire, in particular Texas. In the end, however, all Spain would keep after the wars of independence would be Cuba and Puerto Rico. [Wikipedia: Louisiana Purchase]

US territorial expansion. The Louisiana Purchase (1803) from France, who got it from Spain. The population was primarily Native American. Compiled by H. George Stoll, Hammond Incorporated, 1967; rev. by U.S. Geological Survey, 1970.

In 1822 President Monroe declared that the Americas were off-limits to European powers (the "Monroe Doctrine ") and set off a chain of expansionist policies into Latin America. In the next thirty years Mexico, which had just become independent from Spain, was to lose half of its territory, and its Hispanic inhabitants, to the U.S. In 1836 Texas became independent through the actions of Sam Houston's rebel army, with the collusion of the U.S. government. A few years later, the U.S. "manufactured" a war with Mexico and forced Mexico to give up the lands which comprise the current states of California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, parts of Arizona. Along with the land, however, came a significant number of Mexican citizens who would thus become U.S. citizens, albeit second class ones. [Wikipedia: Mexican-American War] [Wikipedia: Monroe Doctrine]

US territorial expansion. Annexation of Mexican territory. Mexico became independent from Spain in 1812. Compiled by H. George Stoll, Hammond Incorporated, 1967; rev. by U.S. Geological Survey, 1970

After this, there was a big push from many sectors in the U.S., oftentimes spearheaded by U.S. individuals and businesses with the connivance of the U.S. Government, to take more Mexican land, to take over Central America, as well as the Caribbean islands, in particular Cuba, which wasn't independent from Spain yet. However, the only outright territorial expansion that followed the earlier ones was Puerto Rico which, along with Cuba, the Philippines and Guam, were taken from Spain after another manufactured war--the Spanish-American war of 1898--but which unlike them was incorporated as a colony ("associated state"). [Wikipedia: Spanish-American War]

Still, despite not being under direct control of the U.S., in the 19th and 20th centuries, Latin American countries by and large came to be under the economic control of big-money interests in the U.S., which did not hesitate to call in the U.S. government if they thought their interests were in the slightest way threatened, even if it meant that much needed land and economic reform was forestalled and extremely unjust social systems were perpetuated, preventing those countries from advancing economically and relegating the poor peasant majority to a life of misery and subservience. The U.S. has intervened militarily in Latin countries on dozens of occasions in the last 150 years, changing governments and all but running these countries' economies.

The importance of the historical context

It is in this historical context that we must view the U.S. and the Hispanic/Latino population. The core of the Hispanic population in the U.S. didn't originally come to this country from afar as free agents, as other immigrants did, but were rather incorporated by a process of expansion and exploitation by what was a very race-conscious society. Thus the original Hispanic population shares with Native Americans and African Americans a history of domination and discrimination.

This historical perspective is not only relevant for the descendants of originally absorbed Hispanics, but also to many actual immigrants from Latin America. There is strong evidence that the waves of Latin American immigration to the U.S. are closely tied to U.S. businesses' economic interests in, and U.S. governments' policy towards, their countries of origin and to the social and economic disruption for which they are in large measure responsible.

Central America

Thus, for example, the U.S. was heavily involved in the civil wars in Central America in the 1980's, which is when immigration from Central America took off. These civil wars were the result of a highly polarized society--with an East-West (U.S.-Soviet) component superimposed--in which the U.S. supported right wing dictators or guerrillas who supported a status quo (or wanted to return to a previous status quo) in which the vast majority of the population were oppressed by unjust economic, social and political system, one in which the great majority of the population lived in extreme poverty. These wars caused great social disruption among the poor, rural masses who out of desperation migrated to the U.S.


In the case of Mexico, U.S. economic interests are heavily involved in setting up factories, known as maquilas, along the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border in which there is a great deal of exploitation of workers going on and little potential for social or economic advancement. These maquilas have caused great social disruption in surrounding rural Mexican areas. Many of the recent Mexican immigrants to the U.S. are precisely these displaced and exploited workers--or would-be workers--who, once displaced from their natural environment and support systems by the allure of the maquilas, find it easy to look for a better life across the border.

Puerto Rico

The case of Puerto Ricans, the second largest Hispanic group coming to the U.S., is somewhat different, for they were given a free ticket to enter this country as U.S. citizens when their country was incorporated as a United States territory (without their permission or consent). Lack of economic opportunities and inside the island are in part responsible for a mass exodus which has resulted in there being more Puerto Ricans in the mainland than in Puerto Rico itself. But also responsible are the situation of total economic dependency with the mainland and the aggressive recruiting tactics of U.S. businesses which attracted them to U.S. cities after World Word II, just as these cities were beginning to undergo a downward spiral of decay and abandonment. [Wikipedia: Puerto Rico]

Dominican Republic

Finally, let us look at the case of the Dominican Republic, where many of the Hispanics in the North Shore come from. It is said that now almost one in ten Dominicans born on the island now live in the U.S. Immigration from that country got into full swing during the reign of a brutal dictator, who was supported by the United States for the simple reason that he supported the economic status quo, unfair as it was, and was a staunch anti-communist. The story is typical and quite instructive. We must remember that between 1903 and 1965 the US intervened militarily in the Dominican Republic four times to "protect US interests" or "American lives". The infamous Dominican dictator Trujillo received enthusiastic backing from the US for 30 years, since he took power in 1930 in a coup, despite his brutal regime. Then in 1961 the CIA had Trujillo assassinated after he became a liability due to his unpopularity. Then Juan Bosch, a social-democrat, was elected president with wide popular support. He wanted to modernize the country through land reform and provide public assistance to the poor. Nonetheless, he was deposed in a CIA-backed coup, even though he was pro-business and anti-communist, just because he wasn't anti-communist enough. When a countercoup tried to return popular president Bosch to power, the U.S. invaded the country to prevent it in 1965. It is in this context that we must understand the beginning of mass Dominican exodus to the United States in a country that was kept backward, undemocratic and dependent on U.S. big business interests. [Wikipedia: Dominican Republic] [Wikipedia: Dominican American]


The U.S., both through its economic and government agents, has fostered a relationship of economic dependency and almost total control towards the economies of the hemisphere and the countries from where Hispanic immigrants come since the days of the Monroe doctrine. These poor and dependent economies and unjust social systems are now pushing some of their citizens to migrate to the richest country in the hemisphere, a country which has had a lot to do in setting up those dependent economies. Thus one can see this migration as a safety valve for an explosive situation for which our country is in great part responsible.


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    Text copyright © Jon Aske. Give full credit if you use any of it.