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Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, by Rodolfo F. Acuna.

May 22, 2012

>Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, by Rodolfo F. Acuna. Second edition. Harper & Row, 1981.

A well-documented, alternative history of Chicanos in America told from their point of view rather than that of the dominant culture, which explods many commonly held myths about them.

Rudolfo Acuna’s Occupied America has a clear thesis.  The four states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California are territory captured and occupied by the USA in the mid-1800s.  Ever since, Mexicans living in those states have lived under the domination of their invaders sometimes acquiescing, but often resisting their domination.

That is not the story most of us learned from our US history classes.  Yet much of the story is familiar. We read of Anglo slaveowners moving into Texas and fighting for their independence and the Mexican War leading to the US acquisition of New Mexico, Arizona, and California. This time, however, we see the events from a different viewpoint, that of Mexicans living in those regions. We get more details about some aspects of the story, such as long-term conflicts that emerged as Anglos sought additional lands and the extreme numbers of Mexicans killed in Texas and in the conquest of Mexico.  Essentially Acuna tells another version of the same story. Versions differ but less in essential content and facts than in emphasis and interpretation.  We are accustomed to differences between versions of events; between the movie and the book, between different characters in a novel, between different observers at a crime scene. Acuna has given us a different version of US history that forces those of us who are Anglo Americans to question what our country has done.  For those who are of Mexican descent, this version of their past presented their ancestors as engaged participants.

Much of what Anglos think we know about the history of Mexicans in America is based less on facts than on ideologies of Manifest Destiny and the alleged superiority of European ancestry and white skins. When Acuna does challenge what we think we know, it is these myths that he questions. By adding factual information, usually left out of history books, he shows us a new side of history.

The first section of Acuna’s book focuses on the conquest of the land that became the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California and of the fierce resistance with which Mexicans fought it. The Texas Rangers and other Anglos wanting their lands called them “outlaws” of an “inferior race,” but Acuna describes them as a guerilla force trying to preserve what was theirs.  In the second section Acuna looks at Chicanos in twentieth-century America around topics of immigration, labor, and politics.   He positions changes in immigration and in immigration policies in relation to US investments in Mexico and the demands of Anglos for cheap labor. His sections on labor and political activism highlight the ongoing violence used against those of Mexican heritage.

The edition of Occupied America that I read was published in 1981. Since then the book has become a classic with eleven editions printed. Given all that has happened in the past thirty years for Chicanos, it seemed dated. A newer edition would have a better choice.

The removal of other books I have read that have been banned by the Tuscan school district have seemed just silly.  Occupied America, however, offers a challenge to the myth of America which the Arizona  authorities want to promote. This is a powerful challenge, well grounded in facts, but from the viewpoint of the oppressed rather than the dominant group in our society.   It needs to be read by students and citizens, whatever their ethnic background if we as a nation are ever to move toward equality. Anglo students, perhaps even more than Chicano ones, could view our nation more realistically if they read this book.

I read this book for the Read and Resist Tuscan Challenge.

I strongly recommend Occupied America to everyone. I would love to teach it in a classroom alongside a more standard US history text so that students could assess the differences between the versions.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 23, 2012 8:45 am

    I wasn’t schooled in North America, and I’m naturally sympathetic to Acuna’s thesis, but this review really opened my eyes to how deeply I’ve internalized the dominant view. Thank you for sharing.

  2. May 24, 2012 8:46 am

    Thank you. Yes, that is why we need to read other people’s versions of events. They really can open our eyes. Dominant views are most dangerous when they go unquestioned.

  3. July 12, 2012 2:45 am

    Ack! How did I miss this review?!

    This book sounds so great. I really want to read it, and I was going to, but the only copy at my library has funky mystery stains that I’m scared to touch. Perhaps if I try requesting a different edition via ILL I’ll get luckier. 😉

    Good to know about the earlier editions sounding dated. I hate when publishers churn out new editions with negligible changes every couple of years just to get more money from students. I’ll look for a more recent edition, though.

    • July 31, 2012 4:46 pm

      Yes, this is a book you need to read and publicize. It does a fine job of showing why we need specialized books to supplement what we get fed as U.S. history. The section on Texas and its revolution should be read by all Texas students in place of taking trips to the Alamo.

      Sorry to be slow responding. I’ve had health problems and am just beginning to catch up.

  4. December 1, 2013 7:55 pm

    How interesting, you come across a person you know on a blog from a post that is a year old. 🙂 (Melissa up there). I’m writing a paper on how the “traditional history” of the West was revised under “New West Historians” using Occupied America and Patricia Limerick’s A Legacy of Conquest.

    • December 2, 2013 2:11 pm

      Sounds like a great paper. They really did change the direction of Western History away from the story of heroic whites. I was in grad school in history in those years and saw it happen.
      I went to your website and was very impressed with the projects you have been/are doing–especially your resources and about pages. You made me sorry that I have retired and can’t be using some of that in a classroom any more. Feels good to know that others are following up on the work I used to do.
      Keep up the good work.

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