The University of Texas at Austin Latino Research Initiative

The stories that didn’t get sung: recovering Latinx narratives from the 1850s

Fri, March 15, 2019
The stories that didn’t get sung: recovering Latinx narratives from the 1850s

Written by Jessie Temple

If you’ve ever driven down a Texas highway with the radio on, you’ve probably heard the story of Felina, the Mexican girl in Marty Robbins’ 1959 hit “El Paso,” whose black-eyed beauty led an American cowboy to a bad end. It may not have hit the charts until 1960, but Robbins’ song came from a long history of lurid border stories dating back to the 1850s. Dr. Jesse Alemán, currently a research fellow at the Latino Research Initiative, has spent a lot of time looking at those stories, specifically, the novelettes that were in wide circulation in the United States in the mid-19thcentury. He argues that those stories shaped not just mid-century ideas about the west (including western movies and music), but current-day immigration policies of the United States. Sure, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson may have been producing canonical texts in the mid-19thcentury, but as Alemán notes, “In 1848, that’s not what people were actually reading. The way white people consumed Mexicans was through pulp fiction. And we’re still hearing that same story: that Mexicans are rapists, that they’re storming the border. It points to the power of print to shape peoples’ opinions.”

In the 1850s, the United States was in the middle of an identity crisis on an epic scale. The signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 transferred 525,000 square miles of Mexico to the United States – that is, most of what is now Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming – and established the Rio Grande as the northern border of Mexico.  It was an amazing cartographical trick: imagine going to bed in Mexico and waking up in Wyoming. To further complicate matters, the United States were far from united. The schisms that would lead to the Civil War were beginning to widen, with proponents and opponents of slavery each hoping to use the acquisition of Mexican territory to swing the balance in their favor. This put many former Mexicans in the uncomfortable position of not knowing whether they would be considered legally enslaveable.

Pulp fiction of the era met a demand from a literate public for gripping narratives and also assuaged the anxieties of white Americans by presenting a glorified image of U.S. imperialism. Novelettes like Magdalena, The Beautiful Mexican Maid depicted a Mexico full of swarthy, conniving men inclined to murder Yankees and pale, swooning maidens inclined to love them. Cross-dressing and racial passing were also common themes, as authors catered both to their readers’ appetite for sensation and their attempt to make sense of their own shifting identities.

As for the newly-annexed Mexican Americans, Alemán describes the necessary response as a “vexed transformation,” and suggests that this transformation – the pressure to assimilate, and the impossibility of assimilation – continues to shape Latinx experiences in the United States.

Alemán is familiar with the vexed transformation. He describes his own journey, from bad student in a migrant farmworker community in Selma, California, the Raisin Capital of the World, to professor of English at the University of New Mexico, as a transition catalyzed by books. “I was a classic first-generation college kid,” he says. “I had no clue. I was a horrible writer. My modifiers dangled, my verbs never agreed – but I had a lot to say about what I read!” After writing his master’s thesis on Dostoevsky, he went to Kansas for a doctoral program. “And suddenly I felt like the only Mexican American in all of Kansas. But now I was a reader, so I did what readers do: I turned to books. I found another Mexican American story in Jose Antonio Villareal’s novel, Pocho, which is about another first-generation kid making a transition. He loved the Russians too, by the way. And this literary encounter helped me to reconceptualize my own process of transition, and also to reconceptualize my field.”

Exploring 19th century fiction, Alemán began to look for the Mexican side of the story. Noticing that canonical authors like Hawthorne, Emerson, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller, and Frederick Douglass all mentioned Mexicans, he began to think that there must be a nineteenth-century Mexican American literary culture. He started with what he describes as a “stupid” process: typing Hispanic surnames into the search function at the Library of Congress. The stupid process was effective: Alemán found Loreta Velazquez, a Cuban woman who, in 1876, published an account of her adventures cross-dressing to serve as a soldier in the U.S. Civil War. He also found a community of scholars dedicated to the recovery of Latinx narratives through the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project. The amount of work he and his colleagues are recovering is staggering, says Alemán, even overwhelming “when you think of how much we’re missing.” Among other narratives, Alemán has recovered the only contemporaneous first-person Latino account of the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as the first—and to date, only—Latino prisoner of war narrative of the Civil War.

Alemán’s current work focuses on Latinx writings about the U.S. Civil War, seeing the war both as a real historical event and as an appropriate metaphor for the struggle for identity in the face of forced acculturation and shifting borders. From El Paso to Gettysburg, “I’m never surprised to see Latinxs pop up in history,” says Alemán. “I’m more impressed by the body of work they left behind.” 

Dr. Alemán is a professor of English and Presidential Teaching Fellow at the University of New Mexico, where he teaches nineteenth-century American and US Latino/a literary histories. He will be a fellow at the Latino Research Initiative through Spring 2019. Find him at jman@austin.utexas.edu.

Image featuring Loreta Velazquez and her "male" counterpart, Harry T. Buford, courtesy of: https://civilwarwomen.wp.tulane.edu/essays-3/loreta-janeta-velazquez-and-harry-t-buford/
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