'New' History Sets Record Straight

Mary Helen Ponce is a Sunland writer who teaches literature at Mission College and at UCLA

Now that the presidential race is underway, and staunch Republicans--Newt Gringrich (a former history professor) and Sen. Robert Dole, (presidential aspirant), both of whom have taken issue with the "new" American history taught in U.S. classrooms--are busy garnering endorsements for the GOP, is it safe to assume this topic is moot? If Republicans once more dominate Congress, can change be far behind?

Many Americans support Gingrich and Dole's stance. In their eyes the "new" history--revisionist history in academia--negates the real contributions of our Euro-American founding fathers, the settlement at Jamestown, the first Continental Congress, Manifest Destiny and the taming of the American West.

But not all the new history is detrimental to the spirit of America. In fact, much of it serves to clarify misconceptions about who really founded this country.

As a child I learned that Christopher Columbus (his real name was Cristobal Colon) "discovered" America, the pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving with Indians, and Euro-Americans settled the Wild West. "How can George Washington be the father of my country," I once screamed at the teacher, "when my father is from Mexico?"

When in high school I cringed as I read how Mexican Gen. Santa Anna and his Mexican army of 5,000 butchered the brave heroes--Davy Crockett and James Bowie--during the siege at the Alamo. I felt myself blush upon learning that the first woman hung for a crime in California was Mexican, that the "social bandits" Joaquin Murrieta and Tiburcio Vasquez (of Vasquez Rocks fame) were nothing but petty thieves.

Until the mid-1970s, U.S. history in this country was taught from a narrow, ethnocentric and Eurocentric perspective that rarely took into account the contributions of ethnic Americans. Few who went to school in the '50s or '60s learned the real story of Kit Carson--a hero of the Old West--and the massacre of 500 Indians, women and children, at Canyon de Chelly. The Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee were rarely discussed in detail. In fact, we were expected to snicker at "them Injuns."

Had it not been for "new" history, I might still today ascribe to traditional U.S. historical lore. At Cal State Northridge, where I earned a master's degree, through Mexican American / Chicano studies, I saw where Spanish / Mexicans had helped resettle the West--inhabited since early time by Native Americans--in the late 1580s. In a UCLA history class led by Gary Nash, who now heads the National Center for History in the Schools, I learned the meaning of "revisionist" history.

Later, a seminar on U.S. immigration revealed that Polish immigrants in this country, like their Mexican counterparts, abandoned wives and children in their quest for the American Dream.

Still, "new" history can be problematic. Recently while lecturing on the historical significance of Spanish explorers like Cristobal Colon and Hernan Cortez (not Hernando, as I learned it), I received a notice from the Spanish Colonial Institute at the University of New Mexico listing its new publications. One title immediately caught my eye: "The Aztec Chronicles: The True History of Christopher Columbus," by Spanish Colonial historian Joseph Sanchez. It's described as a quasi-fictional account based on "refined" research in Mexico and Spain, and argues that Cristobal Colon did not discover America! It was Rodrigo de Triana, a mariner with La Pinta, who first sighted land!

I think I'll save this tidbit for next semester. Just now my students are confused enough.

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