A conversation with Eric Kuntzman for Publishers’ Weekly.
Gibson’s El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America (Feb., Atlantic) examines the role of Spain and Spanish speakers in American history.
What led you to write a history of Spanish influence in North America?
It sort of came out of this sense that I got—not in this past election, but the one before—that a lot of the language about immigration hadn’t really changed and it was still kind of like the ’90s. I wanted to take a step back and look at the wider panorama of the European settlement of North America, and especially the United States, and ask, “What was the role of Spanish-speaking people?” Because I think in more recent times the discourse tends to position these people as recent immigrants, when actually a lot of them have been in the United States much longer than, for example, my family has. In a way, the project started as a way to plug gaps in my own knowledge about U.S. history, the Spanish colonial expansion, the connection between Mexico and Central America and the Caribbean, and to just sort of put it all together.
In the book you describe the United States as “part of a larger Latin American community.” What do you mean by that?
A lot of the forces that shaped the United States are very similar if not the same as those in Argentina, Chile, Mexico. You know: European colonization, genocide of the indigenous population, African slavery. These are all things that we share as a continent, and sometimes I think exceptionalism in U.S. history has kind of pushed that to the side. What I’m trying to do is position more centrally the idea that there’s a big shared history, because the whole of the Americas as we know it now was formed by these forces, from Canada down to Tierra del Fuego.
And if there was a broader understanding within the United States of its shared history with Mexico and Latin America, how do you think this would affect U.S. anxieties, discourse, and policy?
That’s the tough question. Because, I mean, in some ways we can know all this, but does that change how people feel? Would that change how people talk about the caravan [of asylum seekers traveling north to the U.S.-Mexico border], to use the most recent news flashpoint about people coming up from Central America? I would hope this broader history would make people reflect a bit more, be less quick to jump to perhaps unfair conclusions, to just think a bit more thoroughly about the historical forces that have caused things like inequality.