How Mexico Influenced Life in the Early American Southwest

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The American Southwest has always been tied to Mexico. In this lesson, we'll talk about some of the influences of Mexico on the Southwest, and see what this has meant for American history.

Culture of the American Southwest

I love the Southwest. I've lived here most of my life, and in that time there are a few things I've noticed about Southwestern culture. We like burritos. We live in towns with names like Santa Fe and Amarillo. Many of us also grew up hearing stories of horrifying figures like La Llorona who would snatch us up in the middle of the night if we didn't behave. You know where else you can eat burritos and terrify young children with tales of phantasmal weeping child-snatchers? Mexico. To this day, the Southwest is filled with evidences of a Mexican heritage that has never truly been forgotten. Mexican culture has had a dramatic impact upon the history of the American Southwest. So vamos, let's go and see what this looks like. And if you see a soggy ghost weeping over her dead children…run.

Anybody up for appreciating Mexican culture?

The Southwest Before America

The 1500s to 1800s

Let's go back to the 16th century, when the region we know today as the Southwest was actually the northern territories of the Spanish colony of New Spain. This region was slowly filled with Spanish colonists, but they were pretty far from the colonial center in Santa Fe, so true Spanish culture was not always maintained. The colonists also began marrying Amerindian people of the region, and over time developed distinct identities. Rather than Spaniards, or even Mexicans, they saw themselves as Tejanos, Californios, and Nuevo Mexicanos.

The 1800s

Now let's jump forward to the 19th century. In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain after a decade-long war. The northern territories, now part of Mexico, were still pretty sparsely populated, so Mexican presidents allowed American settlers to immigrate into Texas, New Mexico, and California. Immigration was bolstered in the early 1820s by Stephen Austin, who got permission to bring American families into the Mexican territory of Texas, or Tejas. Those settlers were supposed to learn Spanish and adopt the Catholic faith. Not all did, but they did marry into Mexican families, fortifying Tejano, or Texan, identity.

In 1836, the Tejanos/Texans declared their independence and formed the Republic of Texas. It's important to remember that the Texan identity at this time was really a combination of Anglo-American and Mexican ideas, customs, and beliefs. Well, it wasn't long before Texas decided to join the USA, which it did in 1846. Since Mexico hadn't actually recognized Texan independence yet, this sparked the Mexican-American War. The war ended in 1848 with the United States claiming the northern third of Mexico for its own. The Mexican North had just become the American Southwest.

In 1848, the territories of Northern Mexico, in white, were transferred to the United States
Northern Mexico territories map

The Early American Southwest

For the rest of the 19th century, the American Southwest was characterized by a mixture of Mexican and American practices. After all, the Mexican families living in this region didn't move just because the border did. So, the American Southwest was built upon Mexican foundations.

Political Refuge

The strong presence of Mexican communities in the Southwest meant that Mexico stayed fairly involved in the region. During Mexico's times of political strife during the 19th century, liberal leaders pushing for democracy would flee into the American Southwest for diplomatic protection. Hidden amongst educated Mexican-American communities, these leaders would plan out Mexico's future from across the border. Also, many refugees would flee permanently to the predominately Mexican communities of the American Southwest as well.

Open Border and Economic Interchange

In terms of average citizens, there was often little distinction between the American Southwest and Mexico itself. People often forget that the border patrol is a relatively modern invention in America. In fact, for the entirety of the 19th century, the border between the United States and Mexico was completely open. People crossed it every day. Sometimes, people lived on one side of the border, and worked on the other.

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