News Column

Hispanic Heritage Runs Deep in the USA

Oct. 12, 2012

Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow

A vaquero, ca. 1830.
A vaquero, ca. 1830.

"Hispanics," "immigration" and "immigrants," whether "illegal" or not, have been hot topics during the presidential campaign. But these discussions have all missed the point: The United States isn't becoming a Hispanic nation; it always has been.

Whether Hispanics account for 15% or 16% of the population today is immaterial. Hispanic culture has been part of "America" longer than the United States has existed.

Spanish Shaped America

Understanding Hispanic heritage is key to understanding the roots of American culture, whether it is the dollar sign, cowboy icon, barbecue and mustangs or Texas chili -- which is as old as the Constitution.

Five states have Spanish names (Florida, California, Nevada, Colorado, Montana) and four more (Texas, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona) have Hispanicized native names. And it's no wonder: Until the mid-19th century, they were all part of New Spain, and then part of Mexico after independence, before the U.S. took them over.

Technically, Spanish language and culture became part of the national fabric of the United States when the U.S. expanded West of the Mississippi and South of the Carolinas. Over a period of 82 years, the U.S. penetrated deeply into the Hispanic sphere, annexing or occupying Florida (1821), Texas (1845), Northern Mexico (1848 and 1854), Puerto Rico (1898) and the Panama Canal zone (1903).

In so doing, the U.S. acquired a Hispanic personality that has lasted to this day. But that personality started developing long before the annexation of Florida and Texas. The oldest records of European explorers and settlers on the territory of United States were written in Spanish. The oldest European town, St. Augustine, Fla., was founded by Spain in 1565 -- 42 years before the founding of Jamestown.

Americans owe the words tornado, canyon and ramada to early 16th century quests for gold carried out by Spanish explorers Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, Hernando de Soto and Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. The Comanche, Apache and Sioux warriors got their trademark horsemanship from the Spanish, who re-introduced the horse to the continent. The word "mustang" is a deformation of the Spanish term mestengo (for stray cattle). Ranching was originally Spanish. Conquistadors brought it with them to the New World. Lasso, chaps and shack are all anglicized Spanish ranching vocabulary.

U.S. law has been influenced by the Spanish legal tradition, as symbolized by the carving of Castillian monarch Alfonso X in the House of Representatives.

Our Spanish Stock Exchange

Even the U.S. dollar has Spanish roots. From 1500 until the mid-19th century, the Spanish dollar, commonly referred to as "pieces of eight," was the de facto currency of international commerce. It served as a model for currencies ranging from the U.S. dollar to the Chinese yuan, and was legal tender in the U.S. before Congress approved the Coinage Act of 1857.

The dollar sign, the ubiquitous $, is widely believed to be derived from symbols related to the Spanish currency circulating in the American colonies. Stock prices were quoted on the New York Stock Exchange in eighths until 1997.

In short, the USA's Hispanic heritage runs much deeper than Tex Mex and recent immigrants. It shaped daily life for Americans of every race long before Hispanics became a sought-after political constituency. ----

Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow are the authors of The Story of Spanish, to be published by next year.



Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012


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