The Spain Among Us

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Spaniards began to settle in the West about sixty years after Coronado’s expedition had passed through, when Juan de Onate led a group of three hundred people, nearly half of them soldiers, to the Rio Grande Valley in 1598. Santa Fe was founded in 1609 by Pedro de Peralta. Despite the best efforts of the government to persuade settlers to live together in walled towns for their own protection, the Spaniards set themselves up in scattered isolation, each family close to its fields. Nonetheless, by 1800 Santa Fe had a population of about 2,500. In 1807 the United States government sent Lt. Zebulon Pike to look around and size up the region. When Pike built a small fort and ran up the Stars and Stripes, the alarmed Spanish arrested him and escorted him out through the Rio Grande Valley, which impressed the spy with its beauty and fertility. Pike’s published description of the region excited great interest in the East. When Mexico attained its independence in 1821, its government opened the borders to trade with the United States, with the result that a brisk and profitable commerce sprang up along the Santa Fe Trail.

One of the premier artists and mythmakers of the West, Frederic Remington, spent a great deal of time in the old Spanish section and was impressed by what he saw, or more accurately, by what he didn’t see: “The Americans have gashed [the rest of the] country up so horribly with their axes, hammers, scrapers and plows that I always like to see a place which they have overlooked; some place before they arrive with their heavy-handed God of Progress.”

In New Mexico some Indians managed to retain their old ways of life partly because their Hispanic neighbors had left them alone, to a degree. Charles Lummis gave credit to the Spanish for what they had done and not done, in comparison with the acts of the United States: “It is due to the generous and manly laws made by Spain three hundred years ago, that … the Pueblos enjoy today full security in their lands, while nearly all others (who never came under Spanish dominion) have been time after time ousted from lands our government had solemnly given to them.”

Attracted by the unspoiled landscape and by the chance to see the Indian cultures of the time, many artists began to head to the Southwest in the early 1900s. Expecting to concentrate solely on the Indians, the newcomers were fascinated by New Mexico’s Spanish legacy, preserved in Taos, in Santa Fe, and in remote valleys. They painted portraits, adobe churches and houses, and religious and folk festivals. They found themselves openly accepted by the Indians and Spanish and were enchanted by the old carved woodwork they discovered in Spanish houses and churches, by the metalwork wrought in local smithies, and, most of all, by the religious images called santos , which they avidly collected, causing an unfortunate boom in scavenging by curio dealers.

A 1907 literary history states: “It is curious what an attraction Spain and Spanish history have always .had for the best Americans. It is, as Hawthorne once said, as if America wished to pay the debt she owed to her discovery.” America’s literary fascination with Spain and Spanish America began with Washington Irving, who wrote a biography of Columbus and a highly popular collection of sketches, The Alhambra , recounting old Spanish and Moorish tales. James Fenimore Cooper wrote a novel about Columbus; William Dean Howells introduced American readers to the works of Spanish realists; Herman Melville brooded upon the character of a Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, and scribbled notes in the margins of his copy of Don Quixote . Probably the deepest and most significant Spanish literary imprint of this era was on the quintessentially America writer Mark Twain. The characters in Huckleberry Finn are New World versions of Quixote and Sancho Panza, and one critic went so far as to say, “Mark Twain is not fully understood without Cervantes.”

There was another, darker element in American writing and thinking about Spain—the so-called Black Legend, a durable mélange of anti-Hispanic and anti-Catholic propaganda that presented the Spanish as uniquely cruel and barbarous, interested only in gold and not in planting permanent colonies. The legend had its origins in the brutal and widespread mistreatment of the Indians in the first decades of the Spanish exploration, when the Spaniards killed tens of thousands of Native Americans and enslaved hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands more died of European diseases—smallpox, measles, diphtheria, cholera—to which the inhabitants of the New World had no immunity.