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History Professor Calls For U.S. Inclusion Of Mexico Studies

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

While today's referendum in Mexico casts a spotlight on the past three decades of the country's history, our next guest would like all of us to reach much further back in our understanding of Mexican history. Gabriela Soto Laveaga is a history professor at Harvard. And she recently wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post titled "Every American Needs To Take A History Of Mexico Class." She joins us now from California, where she's visiting family.

Professor Soto Laveaga, welcome.

GABRIELA SOTO LAVEAGA: Thank you so much for having me.

SNELL: First of all, why do you think it's so important for all Americans to study the history of Mexico? What would be the benefit, in your view?

SOTO LAVEAGA: I have been teaching a version of a Mexican history class for the last 20 years. And invariably, students, especially those who are coming from border states, would say, why didn't I learn this in high school? It would have completely changed my view or even how I perceive or vote. And after two decades of listening to this, I finally sat down to write what I had been saying all along, that much of who we claim to be as a nation, so much of it is linked to the Mexican-American War. How we define ourselves as Americans and the values that that we put forth in our society have links, strong links to the mid-19th century.

SNELL: And thinking about those links and that shared history that you talk about, can you tell me about one specific event in Mexican history that you wish Americans understood better and should be studying?

SOTO LAVEAGA: Absolutely. I think for me, one of the most important ones and one that I mentioned in the op-ed is the St. Patrick's Battalion. When the U.S. and Mexico go to war, the U.S. asks for volunteers, as many as 50,000 volunteers to go fight in Mexico. And among the many volunteers who join up are recently arrived refugees from Ireland, who are coming because of famine. And at the time, the Irish were not seen as good citizens in U.S. society. They were seen as dirty, uneducated, prone to criminality. They lived in ethnic ghettos. So they weren't perceived as being wholesome citizens or those who are wanted.

But Irish join these - this call - or answer the call as volunteers in large part because they want to be included in American society. But when they go off to fight in Mexico and once they cross the border and they're fighting and - they realize that this is an unjust war. And the Irish flip sides. And, they join the Mexican side. They formed the Irish Battalion, composed not simply of Irish but predominantly Irish. They - ultimately, when the U.S. wins the Mexican-American War, they're tried for treason and are executed. But in Mexico, they are seen as heroes because it was unwanted immigrants who rose up and had a clear opinion about what was happening on the ground.

SNELL: You know, in your essay, you mention the fact that Mexico lost more than 50% of its territory to the United States at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. That includes all of what is now California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. How big a role does that context play in the respective national identities of the United States and Mexico?

SOTO LAVEAGA: This is huge. I think if we take - just for the case of Mexico, it will take the nation decades to recover this national psyche of having lost a war but also having lost so much of its territory. And let's not forget, literally one month after the signing of the treaty that would end the war and - the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo - gold is discovered in California. At the time, Mexico was bankrupt. If it had been in control of Californian gold, potentially, its financial problems would have been different, and it could have had a very different national path.

But for the United States, it really shaped us as a country when you think of how many thousands of East Coast-based Americans and families headed west in search of the gold of California or headed west and gave us our identity as frontiersmen and -women. But in addition - and this is really interesting - we framed our identity as Americans in a way against what we weren't. And what we weren't, we weren't Mexican. So you had to create this image of a Mexican who was different than us. So it was a lawless Mexican. The term greaser comes into use at this time and a criminal element - also from this time. And that's not who we were. A lazy Mexican, that's not who we were. So this idea of who we are as a nation had to have this back and forth with this play of what we weren't. And it - a lot of it had to do with disenfranchising Mexicans who were already on the ground and who were becoming second-class citizens.

SNELL: History is written from a specific viewpoint, and there are often differences in perspective and interpretation. How would you answer those who might say that teaching American students about the Mexican perspective of history could be divisive?

SOTO LAVEAGA: I don't think factual history can be divisive. Rather, I think that if we examine historical truths and historical facts, we gain the tools to ask critical questions, not just of our past but of our current situation, our present state so we can move away from myths. And I'm not saying that we don't need myths. Every nation is built on histories and stories and myths about who we are. That's how we learn to become who we are as a nation - through these stories that we tell. What I'm asking is that we learn to teach analytical ways of thinking about our past.

SNELL: Your op-ed title says every American needs to take a history of Mexico class. If I'm taking that literally, is one class enough to better understand something as complex as Mexican history? Or should this be part of history education more broadly?

SOTO LAVEAGA: That is a fantastic question. I think it should be part of how we reframe how we teach history, U.S. history here in the United States. It should include multiple perspectives, including different groups within our society but also different perspectives from other nations - how they saw these events, how they were responding or how they were questioning these events at the time. What we need to do is not teach a class but rather to incorporate multiple views into what we're already teaching, to make it a much more complex, a much richer way of thinking of our past.

SNELL: That was Professor Gabriela Soto Laveaga. She is the Antonio Madero professor for the Study of Mexico at Harvard University. Professor, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

SOTO LAVEAGA: Thank you so much, Kelsey. Have a great day.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA'S "SENDERO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.