Joe Barrera: Do We Still Have a Conscience?

This is the season when we celebrate the voice of conscience. This celebration is unique in the world, and springs from our spiritual inheritance. As we understand our history, we were founded by people of conscience, dissenters who fled the oppression of church and state in order to remain faithful to their beliefs. We honor this inheritance of freedom of conscience. It has a name. We call it American Exceptionalism. We feel that it makes us better than other nations. The vision has faded but so powerful is the legacy that there is still a memory of it, still a twinge of conscience which prods us to pay homage to our founding ideals. Heroes of conscience continue to spring up in this country. They are Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature,” born to fight the dark forces of fear and discord. We are perpetually torn between conscience, the insistent voice of reason and light, and the devil of fear, which for us always takes the form of racism and xenophobia. It is the eternal war in our souls. The battle manifests in our belief that our purpose in the world is to be “a light unto the nations.” To be this light is to bear a heavy burden, which we carry willingly. But it can be self-destructive. We are torn by repeated struggles, the endless cycles of progression and regression in our history. These occur when we perceive to have either succeeded or failed in our mission of enlightenment. At the moment we have failed. We are caught up in the cycle of regression. We are moving backward.

Martin Luther King

In their latest visitation, progression and regression have been ferociously fighting since the 1960s. The ebb and flow is ceaseless. The decisive battle has not yet been fought. In the titanic struggle a better angel appeared. The darkness killed him, but his life continues. Because of him we know that regression will give way to progression. The hero said this about conscience: “Cowardice asks the question, Is It Safe? Expediency asks the question, Is It Politic? And Vanity comes along and asks the question, Is It Popular? But Conscience asks the question, Is It Right? The Ultimate Measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge, moments of great crisis and controversy.”

This would be one more moment of great crisis for him. If he were alive today he would be down on the Mexican border, rescuing the 13,000 children torn from their parents’ arms by the U.S. government and caged like animals. “We are responsible for that atrocity,” he would say to us. “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” He would condemn the racism he knew so well, still directed against his own people, and at the same time non-violently lie down and stop the latter-day slave ships, the dangerously overcrowded vans ferrying desperate immigrants to slave-like jobs. He would stand in front of the wall of shame and intone, “Tear down this wall!” He would fearlessly defend the asylum seekers, reminding us that we have laws granting them the right to seek refuge in the land of the free. He would call all of us, Whites, African Americans, Latinos/Chicanos, to stand with him in conscience. And we would respond, knowing that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not just a hero for Black folks but for everyone of us.

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

Issue 6: Submission Deadline

This is a quick update to anyone who might like to contribute to our sixth edition, the “Veterans Issue,” which is scheduled for winter.  We’d like to have all material in by October 25th. In past issues, we have reached out to writers locally and all over the world, but in this particular edition, we hope to really focus in on our Colorado community and those along the front range.

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We are looking for stories — fiction, essays, memoirs, poems — from those who have served. While it might sound like we are interested only in the military experience, we recognize that veterans are not only soldiers, but members of our community in every capacity. If one has served, she or he may send us a piece about their military experience…or anything else under the sun. And, if you are not a veteran, we still invite you to share, so long as the piece is relevant to the veteran experience. Many civilians are involved with veterans, are married to them, or are raised by them. Please continue to send us the high quality work we have been so generously provided now for two years.

We hope this clears the way a bit, and look forward to carefully considering each piece. If not, feel free to tug our sleeve with a question or two.

With Gratitude,
The Almagre Staff

Joe Barrera: Comanches in Downtown Colorado Springs

During Hispanic Heritage Month we honor the true history of this region. This year marks the 239th anniversary of an event that occurred in what is now downtown Colorado Springs. In 1779, don Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish colonial governor of New Mexico, came down Ute Pass with 800 soldiers, militia, and Ute and Apache Indian allies. They were in search of the feared Comanche chief, Cuerno Verde, so called because he wore a buffalo headdress with the horns colored green. Cuerno Verde had been terrorizing the isolated colony of New Mexico on the northern frontier of New Spain. So deadly were his raids and so ineffective the response from the decaying Spanish empire that New Mexico was in mortal danger. But then Anza was appointed governor. His task was to destroy the Comanche menace and restore peace to the colony.

Anza was not a Spaniard, but a Creole, born in Sonora. Creoles ranked second in the social hierarchy of New Spain. Above them were peninsular Spaniards, who were the general officers. Below the Creoles were the mestizos, those who were a mixture of Indian and European. Further down were full-blooded Indians and Africans. In this racial caste system, Anza was considered “white” but he could not ascend into the higher ranks of the Army in spite of his proven ability as a soldier. “Los gachupines,” the Spaniards, kept him forever a lieutenant colonel. But they needed him. In 1776 he led an expedition from Sonora across the Mojave Desert and up the California coast and founded San Francisco. This was the first time that Spaniards and Mexicans had crossed the waterless desert into California. Anza did it in record time, with a large party that included women and children, and without loss of life.

To understand Anza we need to know some history. The Spanish frontier was unlike the Anglo American frontier. It was a static frontier that did not advance, like the Anglo frontier. Native Americans lost their lands on the Anglo frontier. On the Hispanic frontier Indians and Mexicans lived side by side. On August 15, 1779, Anza left Santa Fe with an army made up of Spaniards, Creoles, mestizos, Indians, and Africans, people now known as Mexicans, and marched northward into what is now Colorado. He wanted to go up the San Luis Valley, through South Park, down Ute Pass, and catch the Comanches in their usual hunting grounds, the plains east of the Front Range. The New Mexican “vecinos,” the settlers, were familiar with this vast area. They had been hunting and grazing sheep here for generations. “Los vecinos” guided the expedition down Ute Pass, and on August 31, 1779, Anza and his troops attacked a Comanche camp at the confluence of Fountain and Monument Creeks. They had surprised the Comanches, just as Anza intended. They chased the Indians for miles, down through what is now Pueblo, all the way to the foothills of Greenhorn Peak. It was near this mountain, named after the Comanche Chief, that on September 3, 1779, Anza met and defeated Cuerno Verde. It was a huge victory. Anza had saved New Mexico and perpetuated the eternal presence of Indo-Hispano people in this region.

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

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Joe Barrera: Remembering the Mini-Tet Offensive

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Memorial Day is about memories. With this in mind, I visited Joe Berg, the director of the 4th Infantry Division Museum at Fort Carson. There is a soft spot in my heart for the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, 4th Division, with whom I served in Vietnam. I asked Joe about Mini-Tet and the 4th Division. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Tet Offensive, Phase One, of January and February 1968, is well-known. Not so the Tet Offensive, Phase Two, in May 1968. We called Phase Two Mini-Tet, because it had all the ferocity of Big Tet. The 4th Infantry Division whose Area of Operations (AO) was the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, was particularly hard hit. In late May 1968 I was with 1/8th Infantry in the mountainous tri-border area of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I asked Joe Berg what the historical record says about 1/8th Infantry and the 4th Division in the battles we fought there.

I knew the answer already but I wanted confirmation. The record is very skimpy. The 4th Division is a good outfit. In WWI, the division distinguished itself during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Pershing’s sledgehammer attacks on the Hindenburg Line. In WWII, the 8th Regiment, my old unit, spearheaded the 4th Division’s D-Day landings and was the first to secure its beach head, Utah Beach. But in Vietnam we never got the credit we deserved. The battle cry of the division is “Steadfast and Loyal,” and that it has always been. But in the Nam it was other units–the 1st Cavalry, the 173rd Airborne, the Marines at Khe Sanh–who got all the attention. Joe Berg showed me Erik B. Villard’s book, Staying the Course: October 1967 to September 1968–the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Villard devotes about two pages to the 4th Division’s battles in the tri-border area. There is a brief mention of 1/8th Infantry’s fight with the North Vietnamese (NVA) 95C and 101D regiments at Firebase 29 on Hill 824 and other nearby firebases near the Montagnard village of Ben Het. Villard has a lot of ground to cover, so the brevity is understandable. But I wish it wasn’t so.

I was on one of those hilltop firebases whose name I do not remember. At first we were glad to be on the firebase, relieved from humping the 75lb rucksacks we carried. But that didn’t last long.The enemy kept up a constant mortar and artillery barrage. Day and night mortar rounds fell like rain. We were a shooting gallery for 75mm recoilless rifles from adjacent hilltops. Then the two-week-long barrage by Russian-supplied 152mm NVA artillery out of Laos just five clicks (kilometers) away. Those were big rounds, coming in with a horrible shriek. The NVA gunners aimed for the U.S. artillery batteries on the hilltop. We lived like moles in trenches and deep bunkers. We couldn’t patrol outside the wire. They had us surrounded and to venture out was to risk a deadly ambush. Resupply helicopters came in at their own peril. We suffered like the Marines besieged at Khe Sanh. Not as long, but the same kind of thing.

The spirit words on the 8th Regiment’s coat-of-arms are Patriae Fidelitas–Faithfulness to Country. I ran by the  tactical operations center, the TOC, one night and tripped on something. It was the battalion placard, blown down by one of those huge 152 artillery rounds. In the glare of an explosion I saw the Latin, Patriae Fidelitas. The sentiment is powerful. Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall, guarding the empire’s remotest frontier, must have felt it too. Now the 8th Infantry held a 20th-century frontier. I propped up the sign against the sandbags and ran to the safety of my own deep bunker.

 

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: 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.

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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: Christmas in South Texas

Growing up in south Texas in the 50’s we used to get Christmas presents on three different days. First there was the feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6. Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop who gave gifts to poor people, is the original gift-giver whose name has morphed from the Dutch Sinter Klaas into Santa Claus. Because of him people in Europe give and receive gifts. A remnant Spanish custom survived in our small town and the children got gifts on December 6. I remember getting oranges and apples in my stocking, but never the proverbial lump of coal that the  bad kids were supposed to get. For many of the older Mexican people Dec. 6 embodied the spirit of the season, whereas Christmas was the American celebration. All the Christmas customs, the gift-giving, the decorations, etc. were absent. We didn’t have a Christmas tree, for instance, until sometime in the late 50’s. My mother found a dried branch  from the huge pecan tree in the yard. She brought it inside the house, painted it white and hung Christmas lights on it. That was the first Christmas tree I remember. It looked beautiful. Gradually, Christmas presents began to appear under the tree. By the early 60’s most of the old customs had died out and the new Christmas had taken over.

Nativity

The real celebration of “Christ’s Mass” was at church. “Misa de Gallo,” midnight mass on Christmas Eve was the important occasion and even the little kids would attend. The highlight was the procession of the children to the empty manger, to lay down the image of Baby Jesus. After mass everyone would go home and eat tamales and drink the powerful cinnamon-laced Mexican chocolate. That stuff could keep you up all night but of course that was not allowed for the children. The men had gone deer hunting and brought back plenty of venison. The women had spent hours in the kitchen marinating the meat and putting it into the corn dough wrapped in corn husks and then steaming the tamales in huge pots. There is nothing more delicious than venison tamales. For days afterward we would be eating tamales. At Christmas women ruled the house. I remember my mother and her “comadres,” which literally means “co-mothers,” making untold dozens of tamales and enjoying their sisterhood time. I sneaked in just to listen to them talk, but men were not allowed in the kitchen.

The twelve days of Christmas, December.25-January 6, had real meaning in those times. There was the joy of Christmas, but mixed with sadness, as all earthly experience must be. We remembered the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28, when all the men and boys named Inocente were honored. I often wondered how so many not-so innocent types could have that name. And how could Herod have killed so many babies? There was New Year’s Day, sacred to God the Father, who seldom gets any credit, but because of him sacred to all who bear his name, Manuel. After that there was Epiphany, on January 6, holy to all those named Epifanio. On Epiphany the Magi come bearing rich gifts. It is the Day of the Three Kings, el Dia de los Reyes Magos, the day of the Wise Men. This is also the name-day of all those named “Reyes.” In the old way of looking at things your name-day is much more significant than your birthday. The saint or sacred feast whose name you bear is your protector, a type of totem beloved in the Indo-Hispano culture.

If there was a true joyous day for all, this was it. Jan. 6 definitely eclipsed Christmas for gift-giving. Baltazar, Melchor, and Gaspar had brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child. We emulated them and brought our own gifts. We gave gifts to friends and family.  But in a holy time it’s the King you must honor and how can you give the King any gifts? He already has everything, owns everything. He doesn’t need your poor gift. The Irish nuns at the parish school told us so. They said that on his birthday it is the King who gives gifts. During this season we should ask the King for a favor. There is always life, but also death, and the Irish, like the Mexicans, are ever aware of death. The grace we should request, the sisters said, was for the dead–the release of dear loved ones from Purgatory. Release of captives, that was the true spirit of Christmas and Epiphany. More purified sinners are released from Purgatory at Christmas than on All Soul’s Day.

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