Joe Barrera: History of the Southwest Needs Revision

I often wonder why U.S. schools ignore so much that is important when teaching history. It’s a strange thing for a patriotic people, but much of mainstream history is unknown, leaving students ignorant of the foundations of the country. “Minority” history, of course, is almost a complete blank. The Southwest, in particular, is ignored. I tell anybody who will listen that history is important, but as a young man once said to me, “I don’t need to know that because it happened before I was born.” In my eternal quest for enlightenment, I was in Taos last week at the annual international meeting of the Anza Society, a group devoted to research and education on the life and times of Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish governor of New Mexico, 1777-1787, and intrepid trailblazer who explored much of what is now the U.S. Southwest.

Juan Bautista de Anza jpeg
Juan Bautista de Anza

Anza’s main claim to fame is the campaign against the Comanche Indians, led by a chief named Cuerno Verde, who wore a buffalo headdress with green-painted horns, hence the name, Greenhorn. In 1779, Anza led a large force of Pueblo, Ute, and Apache Indians, along with presidial troops and New Mexican settlers, down Ute Pass through what is now Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs. This was a trail-blazing feat which is only poorly known. Known or not, the  Spanish and Indian presence here makes me feel good. I am happy that our patch of ground was the site of events important in the history of the region. The war against the Comanches is important because it shows Anza’s genius, his ability to organize an allied expedition of Native Americans, Spanish soldiers and mestizo settlers against the destructive Comanches who were raiding in New Mexico, indiscriminately attacking indigenous people and settlers. Anza took the Comanches camped along Fountain Creek by surprise, ultimately defeating and killing Cuerno Verde near what is now Walsenburg. This victory and other battles resulted in the Anza-negotiated Comanche Peace of 1786, saving the remote colony of New Mexico from likely destruction by the fierce Comanches. This puts Anza in the same league with famous American frontiersmen, people like Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, and Lewis and Clark. Yet we never hear about him. Fortunately, a group of dedicated community leaders are planning a Colorado Springs Anza Memorial at the confluence of Monument and Fountain Creeks, possible site of the first skirmish with the Comanches as Anza descended Ute Pass.

Sometimes history can play tricks on you. I was with the Anza conference attendees when we toured Taos Pueblo. On the edge of the adobe apartments of the thousand-year-old Taos Pueblo are the ruins of the church of San Geronimo, destroyed by Colonel Sterling Price’s 2nd Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers and Captain John Burgwin’s 1st U.S. Dragoons in February, 1847. The New Mexican and Taos Indian insurgents had revolted against the American occupation, killed the governor imposed on them by the U.S. Army, and were now holed up in the church. I gazed at the wooden crosses in the campo santo, the church-yard cemetery, the mounds of decomposing adobe bricks, and the bell tower that still stands, repaired just enough by the Taos people to keep alive the memory of their slain compatriots. Then I saw the dragoon captain rally his troops for a charge. He was out in front. He fell, mortally wounded. At that moment I felt that I was fated to see what once was, was not now, invisible, but yet still visible. It was real to me. I suppose the experience just came from the knowledge of history.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Joe Barrera: The Real Meaning of Cinco de Mayo

Once upon a time there was an emperor who wanted to make his country great again. He thought, “if we conquer more lands we will become even more feared and respected. If we send the army on an extended deployment we will find the military glory we have always wanted.” Thinking like this, the emperor knew that he had to find a country that would be ripe for the taking. Trouble was, all the neighboring empires were too strong to attack. The emperor didn’t like it, but he was compelled to look far away for a weak country to conquer. Try as he might he could not find one. Then he had a stroke of luck, or so he thought. It turned out that there were some wealthy people who had been driven out of their own country by a revolution and were now living in the capital city. They decided that they had the answer to the emperor’s problem.

The exiles went to see the emperor, who at first received them with some skepticism, but then became quickly interested in the scheme they proposed. “The man who is now president in our country,” they said, “is very unpopular and could be easily overthrown by the army of Your Imperial Highness. Not only is he unpopular, he is also a radical socialist who has confiscated our estates and left us destitute. He deludes the masses by pretending to liberate them from the tyranny of the rich.” The emperor heard this and felt a twinge of conscience. He knew that many of his own subjects were chafing under the oppressive social order he was enforcing. But not to worry. He felt very secure in his power. The oily exiles continued with their blandishments. “Your Highness could appoint your nephew, the Archduke Maximilian, to be the king of our country. He is a man who is ready to serve you and is just looking for an endeavor worthy of your greatness. The people will welcome him with open arms. They will throw flowers at your soldiers when they invade our country. The people will embrace your enlightened rule and all the benefits it will bring.”

The emperor believed them. He sent his army with the Archduke at its head across the sea. But the promises of the exiles were a pack of lies. The president was not unpopular. The people did not welcome the foreign soldiers with bouquets of flowers. They resisted the invaders and mounted an insurgency that lasted for years. The president led the guerrilla war and was never caught in spite of many defeats by the superior forces of the empire. Finally, the emperor gave up. He recalled his army and as soon as the soldiers left the Archduke was shot by the insurgents. The emperor who had dreamed of glory was himself soon deposed when another stronger empire invaded his country.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? With a few minor changes this could be the story of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this sense it is a cautionary tale for the United States. But this is the story of Mexico and France, and el Cinco de Mayo. Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of the first Napoleon, had delusions of grandeur. These were shattered at the Battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862, when a rag-tag Mexican army defeated the vaunted French. The battle started a war that lasted until the French were driven out Mexico. This flagrant European colonialism–the attempt to make brown-skinned people subject to white-skinned people–has become a lesson that teaches freedom. But we don’t know this. Instead, we have American el Cinco de Mayo, time for parties, time for Latinos and Anglos to get gloriously drunk and make the beer companies rich. If only we knew its original significance. The real meaning of this holiday is that we need to “decolonize” our minds. To “decolonize” means that we throw off the mental shackles of inferiority. For U.S. Chicanos, inferiority is always a problem. This is because we are always fighting inferiority, something that is more real internally than it is real externally. Mexican Americans can look at Black Lives Matter and at the Me Too Movement for inspiration. These are examples of human beings reclaiming their own inherent self-worth.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Joe Barrera: On Veterans’ Day: A Tribute to the Valiant

MVCD Button

The ethnic group who won the largest number of Medals of Honor per capita in World War II was the Mexican/Chicano group. This trend continued in subsequent wars. Our city has a connection to a Medal of Honor winner.  He was in the Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, famously promoted by the assassinated John F. Kennedy, whose words, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country” have power still.  In the years after Kennedy, the Green Berets were the Americans who asked, “What can we do for our country?” The soldier knew the answer to that question and acted on it. Now there’s a park in Colorado Springs named for him. It’s in the southeast part of town, home to many of his Mexican, Chicano, Latino, Hispanic brethren. It’s been a while since I went there. Maybe it’s time to go back, time to visit Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez Park and remember a hero.

Benavidez medals

Roy Benavidez started life as the son of migrant farm workers in south Texas. Like so many other Mexican Americans he saw the Army as a way out of poverty. He found the American dream, and much more, in the Army. He paid a high price for it, overcoming anti-Mexican racism in Texas, but he was always proud to serve his country. During his first tour in Vietnam, he was severely wounded when he stepped on a land mine. He spent six months in the hospital recovering. Then it was back to Vietnam. On May 2, 1968, west of Loc Ninh, a Special Forces Recon unit was inserted into an area controlled by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). They were soon surrounded by the NVA and taking casualties. Roy volunteered to help extract this unit. In an LZ overrun with the enemy, with burning helicopters and dead men all around, he was wounded thirty-seven times, was nearly KIA, but, incredibly, survived. For saving most of the Recon team he was awarded the Medal of Honor, but not until 1981.

It’s good to honor heroes, especially those who like Benavidez suffer rejection but go on to prove their love of country. It’s good to do it because white Americans need to recognize two things: 1) Hispanic valor, and, 2) that Chicanos/Latinos clearly understand the great worth of this country and the freedoms it affords. When I was a combat infantryman in Vietnam most of the Hispanics in my company were men with deep roots in this country, people like me, whose ancestors were in south Texas at least 100-years before the Anglo Americans arrived. But there were “illegal aliens,” too. These were men who had crossed the border illegally for the express purpose of fighting for the United States. They loved the United States. In the Vietnam days Army recruiters could get illegals into the Army, where the majority ended up in the infantry. I hope that those guys all became U.S. citizens, but if not, will they be deported? I’m thinking of the Colorado Springs Valenzuela brothers, two Vietnam veterans who were deported to Mexico.

I have written about my uncle, Reynaldo V. Zuniga, and his exploits with the 23rd Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, during WWII. He was badly wounded during the siege of Brest and nearly died. I grew up hearing his war stories. He had a big influence on me. One of his Army friends, Jose M. Lopez, also was a big influence on me. Not that Jose Lopez told stories. He was a very quiet man. It was my uncle who would tell the stories about Jose, who probably killed more enemy than Audie Murphy, or at least as many. On December 17, 1944, near Krinkeldt, Belgium, Jose M. Lopez killed 132 Germans with his light .50 machinegun. His actions saved the 23rd Regiment from annihilation in the German onslaught known as the Battle of the Bulge and earned him the MOH.

There’s a street in Pueblo, the Latino city, named after Joe P. Martinez. Joe fought with the 7th Infantry Division in the Aleutians campaign, and won the Medal of Honor in that almost forgotten operation. On May 23, 1943 Joe was killed on the island of Attu, leading the 32nd Infantry Regiment up the Holtz-Chichagof Pass against the entrenched Japanese. Pueblo is rightly called the City of Heroes in honor of Joe Martinez and others like him.

This year marks the 100th birthday of the 4th Infantry Division. The 4th Division is based at Fort Carson and in telling the history of the Division the post historian wrote about the Famous Fourth’s 1944 battle in the Huertgen Forest. He mentioned Macario Garcia, a soldier with the 22nd Regiment, who won the MOH for destroying three machinegun nests and killing six Germans. That was one battle he fought, but there was another one which is never mentioned in the citations. When Macario came home to Sugarland, Texas after the war he went out one day dressed in the uniform of his country’s Army, wearing the big blue ribbon and the Medal of honor around his neck. He sat down to eat at a restaurant. The white owner didn’t serve Mexicans and threw him out. Macario performed home front heroics and slugged the man. White soldiers and sailors rallied to Macario’s defense and soon there was a full-fledged brawl. That battle has now been won, paid for with the same blood shed on the battlefields. And that’s why Latinos fight, to win the rights they deserve as first-class citizens.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D.,
Former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS,
and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.