The Spain Among Us

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In 1883 Walt Whitman received an it Santa Fe and deliver a poem at a celebration of the city’s founding. The ailing sixty-four-year-old poet wrote back from his home in Camden, New Jersey, that he couldn’t make the trip or write a poem for the occasion, but he sent along some remarks “off hand”: “We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources. Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake.”

Whitman was concerned less with rearranging a view of the past than with creating a vision of the future. Although the United States was enjoying immense prosperity, the poet said that the country did not possess “a society worthy the name.” The national character was yet to he established, lie thought, hut he knew that it would he a “composite” and that “Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts”: “No stock shows a grander historic retrospect—grander in religiousness and loyalty, or for patriotism, courage, decorum, gravity and honor. … As to the Spanish stock of our Southwest, it is certain to me that we do not begin to appreciate [its] splendor and sterling value. Who knows but that element, like the course of some subterranean river, dipping invisibly for a hundred or two years, is now to emerge in broadest flow and permanent action?”

 
For many the word ‘Spanish’ evokes missions, but the legacy runs far deeper. We remain on a path that the Spaniards began to blaze five hundred years ago.

But in fact, the Spanish achievement was far from subterranean. It merely seemed so from the Northeast. A great part of the West, from Texas to California, was profuse with the landmarks of Spanish achievement—towns and villages, ranches and churches, places where the Spanish language and culture were defining. The town where he was asked to speak, Santa Fe, was then and is now the oldest political capital in the United States, having been founded in 1609. And the city where Whitman had lived for many years, New York, had been home to a community of Sephardic Jews as early as 1654. Yet Whitman was correct in saying that the Spanish role in America’s past was not fully appreciated and that the Spanish role in America’s future would be critical. These points are being raised more forcefully as the Americas mark the five hundredth anniversary of their discovery by Columbus, on behalf of Spain.

 

What exactly is the Spanish legacy? What is the Spanish imprint on the United States? For most Americans the word Spanish immediately summons up the word mission and an image of whitewashed walls and ornate towers gleaming in the California sun. The missions are indeed the best-known Spanish legacy. In their time they influenced the spiritual and cultural life of millions, and they exert a broad influence on American architecture to this day. The oldest surviving documents written in the United States by Europeans are Spanish—parish registers from St. Augustine, Florida, which is the oldest surviving European settlement in the country. Millions of Americans live in places founded by the Spaniards, places such as San Antonio, El Paso, Santa Fe, San Diego, Los Angeles (actually founded by a party of blacks and Indians under Spanish auspices), and San Francisco. Many of these cities and towns continue to be largely Hispanic in population, culture, and language. The West was explored and settled by Spaniards. Ranching, which is regarded as a peculiarly American way of life, was invented by the Spaniards, and without the efforts of a man named Bernardo de Gâlvez we might have lost the Revolutionary War.

But the Spanish legacy runs far deeper and influences us more today than a list of buildings and place names and heroes would suggest. We are still on a path that the Spaniards began to blaze five hundred years ago. They were the first pupils of the New World, the first to learn the lesson that these continents are the land of dreams. In their books we read the first descriptions of the sequoia, of hailstones that dent helmets, and the inextinguishable hope that the place of utter happiness is just over the horizon. The words más aliá (farther on) appear like an incantation in their chronicles. Not here? Very well. Más aliá!