Carrie Gibson – El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America
The history of North America from the British perspective is a fascinating story. But it’s been done a thousand times. Gibson takes a different approach, visiting the period from the Spanish side. For a fuller picture of North American history than most people get, El Norte would pair well with Bernard Bailyn’s British-focused The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America–The Conflict of Civilizations. Bailyn’s book is a fascinating, if overly detailed, account of the early years on the Eastern seaboard—and the barbarism in his title applies at least as much to the British at least as much as the people they thought barbaric.
But when the British landed at Plymouth Rock, Spanish explorers had already been on the continent for a century. That’s where Gibson come in. She focuses mostly on North America, bringing in South America only where relevant, and also giving some attention to the Caribbean islands, especially Cuba and Puerto Rico. Their interactions with mainland North America have taken many turns over the years, many of which were new to this reader, who is not well-versed in Caribbean history.
For example, the baseball bug bit Cuba early, with the game becoming its national pastime and the island exporting star players as early as the 1920s; Fidel Castro’s passion for the game did not emerge from a vacuum. Today’s Cuban major leaguers, including stars such as Yasiel Puig, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Abreu, and Yoenis Cespedes, are part of a long tradition that predates Cuba’s disastrous revolution that they defected from. Gibson also goes into what Cuban cultural and economic life was like before the revolution. Cuba was well on its way to emerging from a brutal sugar-based economy to one with vibrant business, entertainment, and tourism sectors when the 1957 Revolution turned out the lights, often literally.
Gibson also goes into Puerto Rico’s complicated relationship with the United States that is somehow both close and distant, even today, and the origins of its large expat community in New York City.
The meat of the book dances around from state to state across the southern United States. Gibson spends a lot of time on Louisiana, which spent time in Spanish hands as well as French, as well as in Florida, which remained a Spanish possession even after American independence—Spain and the U.S. were once technically neighbors.
The Southwest also gets its due. The political, ethnic, and cultural boundaries between Mexico and Texas were more fluid back then they are today; today’s border is essentially an accident that stayed in place. There is nothing special about the Rio Grande river, as anyone who has been there will likely tell you. Gibson takes the read from Texas’ Gulf coast through the hill country, and on through New Mexico, Arizona, and California, including the Baja peninsula, from roughly the 16th century up to the present.
Gibson does tie Hispanic-American history somewhat into current events at the vey beginning and end of the book. This makes some sense given the tensions over immigration and nationalism the Trump administration has been stirring up, which will almost certainly outlast it. But Gibson’s focus is more on the history. This is ultimately more effective. Besides being mostly free of off-putting political posturing, Gibson shows that borders, when seen in larger context, are not so sacred. People, language, and culture are fluid, always in motion, and always evolving. The same cannot be said of parochial politics.