Tracing The Mexican-American Past

Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States by Manuel G. Gonzales (Indiana University Press). Cloth, $29.95.

MEXICAN-AMERICANS, CHICANOS, Mexicanos, Hispanos, Latinos: that so many terms should apply to the same people is the result, says California-based historian Manuel Gonzales, of the quest over several generations for identity as an ethnic minority in the United States.

Since the 1960s, Gonzales writes in Mexicanos, "Chicano" has been a favored term, yet one that is politically laden and not widely accepted in the mainstream. Neither, he believes, has Mexican historiography generally, because it has been both heavily politicized and largely confined academically to Chicano and ethnic studies departments. "This ideological orientation," he writes, "has worked against the complete acceptance of Chicano historians and other Chicano scholars by their colleagues in the academy."

Gonzales suggests that "Mexican" is the better overarching term, especially because, in a broad survey taken in 1990, "62 percent of people of Mexican heritage born in this country preferred [it], as did 86 percent of the immigrant population."

He also demonstrates by example that history need not be overtly politicized in order to score political points. He proceeds to unfold a lively narrative that begins with the Spanish conquest of Mexico and ends in the "Gringolandia" of the late 1990s. Gonzales has a sharp eye for historical ironies. In one section, for instance, he examines the role of the bandido (bandit) in the mainstream culture's perception of Mexicans generally. "Lawlessness," he writes, "was not uniquely characteristic of the oppressed Mexican population; it was rampant on the frontier--Indeed, some historians have seen a lack of respect for the law as an American tradition."

Yet, he writes, "accommodation by the conquered Mexican population was much more common than resistance"; saying that even though on the frontier they were despised as racially inferior, most Mexicans struggled to be good citizens.

That overlooked tradition, Gonzales notes, emerged in many ways: in the deeds, for instance, of José M. López, an army sergeant who "killed more enemy soldiers than any other American in World War II." And it continues today, he says, in the increased presence of Mexicans in all aspects of mainstream culture, and particularly among the intelligentsia.

Likely to be widely used in college history courses, Gonzales' book should be of much interest to general readers as well.BY