'Reconquer' southwest U.S. movement based on junk history

This month marks the 171st anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo; the 1848 agreement that ended the Mexican-American War and secured for the U.S. most of the lands of California, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, as well as small parts of Colorado and Kansas.

That it came just before President Trump refused in his State of the Union address to commit to an amnesty-for-wall deal was actually coincidental. Although the land granted under the Treaty was exchanged for money and debt-relief (and ratified by large majorities of both the Mexican and Democrat-led U.S. senates), today the transfer is routinely characterized as an act of theft. Because of this, so the argument goes, both a border wall along those lands and a denial of amnesty are respectively illegitimate and unjust.

The stolen-land or “reconquest” argument for amnesty stands out among the others because, as Samuel Huntington once pointed out, it is fundamentally an aggressive one. It suggests that amnesty is a form of justice and that it is Mexicans’ right to freely enter these parts of the U.S. since it was once their land. As the slogan goes: “We didn’t cross the borders, the border crossed us.” It stands for immigration as vindication.

Examples of this angle abound in op-eds throughout institutional news outlets (herehere, and here, for instance), but I’ll focus on this one in the New York Times penned by Enrique Krauze, “arguably [Mexico’s] most prominent public intellectual,” according to the New Yorker. Quoting him at length, he writes: 

Three centuries before the ancestors of Mr. Trump landed on United States soil, there were Mexicans in that northern territory known as New Spain and Mexico. But neither they nor their descendants are even symbolically part of American national pride…. 

… It is time for it to come fully into the light, to be recognized and vindicated. For us Mexicans, this is the chance for a kind of reconquest… We need a reconquest of the memory of that war so prodigal in atrocities inspired by racial prejudices and greed for territorial gain.

Of course, it’s true that the indigenous people of the Southwest inhabited the region before the president’s ancestors (who arrived in the late 1800s) as well as the early English settlers. In the mid-1500s, they were colonized by Spanish conquistadores and then, in 1810, forcibly made to merge into newly independent Mexico. That they were subsumed into a Spanish-turned-mestizo population along the way isn’t mentioned by Krauze and rarely is elsewhere because it creates a problem.

Although there certainly were earlier arrivals in the Southwest than the English, the Spanish were imperialists who enslaved indigenous males and turned the women into concubines. The entire premise of the reconquest argument is that the U.S. aggressively took the Southwest and is, therefore, holding it illegitimately. In forgetting this, the argument simply becomes one of who stole the land from the indigenous first. As NumbersUSA founder Roy Beck has put it, Mexicans who make this argument “have no more claim on free migration to the U.S. than do citizens of Great Britain who can point out that their country once owned what is now the eastern U.S. but lost it in a violent takeover by the Americans.”

Further, the population of the region in 1848 was miniscule, at around 80,000 or just one percent of Mexico’s population at the time. And when the U.S. offered citizenship to the mestizo inhabitants, most took it. Because the population was small and most stayed put, Mexicans south of the border today have little to no ancestral claim to them or the land. In other words, there’s nothing to “take back.”  

According to the government-funded Brookings Institute, it’s partly President Trump’s fault that such a narrative exists. In commenting on the “Demand What’s Ours” campaign to nullify the Treaty (on the grounds that it was signed under duress), Brookings’ Vanda Felbab-Brown opined that it was an indication just how much the President has “managed to alienate” Mexico.

But according to a Zogby poll going back to 2002, it’s Mexican schools, where the reconquest narrative is widely taught, that are largely to blame. It found that 58 percent of those polled in Mexico thought “the territory of the United States’ Southwest rightfully belongs to Mexico.” There’s little reason to think this opinion has lost popularity.

As for who’s to blame in the U.S., there’s certainly numerous public and influential figures who should be called out. Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), for instance, was an early joiner of the most prominent U.S.-based organization pushing for reconquest: the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán or MECha (“Aztlan” being their name for the Southwest after it’s “taken back”). If he hasn’t disavowed this irredentist organization yet, he should.

Presidential candidate Julian Castro grew up steeped in a similarly extremist atmosphere. His mother was a prominent member of La Raza Unida (“United Race”), a pro-reconquest political party from the 1970s founded by University of Texas-Arlington professor (and virulent racist), Jose Angel Gutierrez. Castro today praises his mother’s activism.

Another academic is University of New Mexico professor Charles Truxillo, who once threatened that reconquest must be secured “by any means necessary” (He later dialed it back to a Krauze-esque ”soft” reconquest). His violent vision later came to life in Raul Ramos y Sanchez’s 2009 novel American Libre, a Turner Diaries of sorts for Hispanic ethno-nationalists which portrays a vicious war to create “La Republica Hispana de America,” all in the name “justicia.” The book was widely reviewed and distributed by a leading publisher, Grand Central Publishing. They too should be challenged.

Early in that novel, when the Mexican-American “hero” is still on the fence about joining la revolucion, the leader of the separatists tips him over the edge by applying the reconquest narrative, telling him:

The ground you’re standing on belonged to Hispanic settlers when your great-grandfather was alive. The gabachos didn’t ask permission to come here. They swarmed over the land and overran the locals by sheer numbers.

One-hundred and seventy-one years later, it’s the “swarmers” who’ve been overrun; a fact apparently to be celebrated and pursued further by many here and in Mexico as an act of retribution, and vindication, and justice.


Dale L. Wilcox is the executive director and general counsel at the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a public interest law firm working to defend the rights and interests of the American people from the negative effects of mass migration.