The Spanish Borderlands Revisited: Engaging the Public in Relating the Place of Spain in U.S. History

The Spanish Borderlands Revisited: Engaging the Public in Relating the Place of Spain in U.S. History

Volume 44 Issue 1

Author(s): Charles Nicholas Saenz

Recommended Citation:

Saenz, Charles Nicholas (2019) “The Spanish Borderlands Revisited: Engaging the Public in Relating the Place of Spain in U.S. History,” Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies: Vol. 44 : Iss. 1 , Article 5.



Felipe Fernández-Armesto recounts a wonderful anecdote at the start of Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States (2014). Standing before a room of young cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Fernández-Armesto invited audience members to identify the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in United States. No student recognized San Juan, Puerto Rico. Last fall, I witnessed the same question and answer scenario play out among a community of Latino leaders in Denver. Fernández-Armesto’s experience and mine point to the absence of Spanish history as it pertains to the history of United States. This reality owes to several factors, some of them popular and others historiographical. In my paper, I seek to explore of the historiography associated with this phenomenon and offer some useful pedagogical correctives.

Peninsular exceptionalism and an overly national focus have yielded unfortunate consequences that extend well beyond the academy. The failure of historians of Spain to engage with Spanish history on a broader level has confined the legacy of Spanish colonization and settlement of the Americas to Latin America and separated national narratives on both sides of the current U.S.-Mexico border. Historical legacies as diverse as Spanish involvement in the American Revolution and Spanish colonialism in the Caribbean and its relationship to U.S. imperialism remain largely misunderstood or ignored. The disengagement of norteamericanos with the legacy and continued connectivity of the United States with Spain and the Spanish-speaking world has wrought a lack of understanding, which manifests itself in everything from public calls for Latino Americans to more thoroughly assimilate to political discourse surrounding the border wall.

The historical profession has been riven by silos for generations. Graduate-level instruction in history and the academic job market in general have served to reinforce often meaningless boundaries between continents and peoples. As a U.S.-based historian of Spain trained in the United States, I have come to realize that my focus often has been far too European in its outlook, granting attention to peninsular history over the reach of Spanish culture and society in the wider world. My recent involvement in the “Borderlands of Southern Colorado” project, launched by History Colorado, has opened my eyes to the geographic narrowness of “Spanish” history.

To this end, I call for the community of U.S.-based historians of Spain to reengage with the concept of borderlands history. In 1921, Herbert Eugene Bolton published The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest. A revival of the borderlands concept began in 1970 with John Francis Bannon. During the 1980s, John L. Kessell and David J. Weber broadened the parameters of study. More recently, the past twenty years has witnessed an explosion of written work in this same field that has deepened the saliency of Spanish history to the making of modern North America. This scholarship has retold the history of a “Renaissance Spaniard” in colonial New Mexico, recounted Spanish exploration of the Southwest, uncovered the long-term significance of Spanish conflict with Native peoples, and shifted scholarly analysis of slavery in the United States westward to confront the legacy of Spanish empire. In every case, the scholars working in this field have engaged with new historical voices and reevaluated the positionality of Spanish actors. Their work offers insights for better comprehending the broad sweep of Spanish history and presents new and exciting opportunities for teaching and future research.

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