Gregg R. Hennessey, Book Review Editor
Myth and the History of the Hispanic Southwest
By David J. Weber. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988. Index. 179 pages $27.50
Reviewed by Oakah L. Jones, O’Connor Professor of Spanish Colonial History of Texas and the Southwest, St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, Texas, and author of Pueblo Warriors and Spanish Conquest (1966), Santa Anna (1968), Los Paisanos (1979), and Nueva Vizcaya: Heartland of the Spanish Frontier (1988).
Myths are by definition stories or legends, the origins of which have been forgotten. In history they are used to explain some beliefs or pratices about events, personalities, and eras that are partially fact and often fictional. People are intrigued by myths about history, usually using them to romantacize, propagadize, or promote their own views of history no matter what the truth or the facts might be. “In the interest of creating a usable past,” David Weber writes, “all peoples seem to engage in the making of myths and passing them off as historical fact.” (p. 140) Indeed, he his correct in noting that “the line between myth and reality … is not as sharp as we often choose to believe.” (p.4) Historians and laymen are equally quilty of embracing myths in history.
This work has as its principal purpose the consideration of “some of the myths inherent in the writing of the history of the Spanish-Mexican peoples in what is today the American Southwest.” (p. ix) It contains nine important research essays (some previously unpublished) written and presented by Weber earlier at professional conferences and in historical journals.
Four of the essays were originally delivered as the Calvin P. Horn Lectures in Western History and culture at the University of New Mexico in 1987. After obtaining his doctoral degree from that university, David Weber has in the past quarter century become a prominent expert on the history of the Spanish and Mexican Borderlands, a prolific author of excellent historical studies in many areas, and a well-known historian of international reputation. He was formerly a professor of history at San Diego State University and chairman of the department of history at Southern Methodist University, where he is now Robert and Nancy Dedman Professor of History.
The nine essays brought together in his book are assembled in roughly chronological order. Two of them on the myths concerning the Fray Marcos de Niza and Vásquez de Coronado expeditions pertain to the Spanish Colonial period; four essays apply to the Mexican period (1821-1846); and three are general studies relating to the Spanish and Mexican Borderlands and the historiography of the Southwest. This last category includes “Turner, the Boltonians, and the Spanish Borderlands,” “John Francis Bannon and the Historiography of the Spanish Borderlands: Retrospect and Prospect,” and an essay entitled “”Scarce More than Apes’: Historical Roots of Anglo American Stereotypes of Mexicans.” Each essay is the product of intensive historical research in primary and secondary sources reflected in the explanatory footnotes fully. There are neither illustrations or a bibliography, but they are not called for in a work of this nature.
Weber’s objectivity, depth of research, and interesting writing style are evident in all of these thoughtful essays. While San Diego is not the specific subject of any of the chapters and is mentioned only once in connection with Indian raids of the 1830s and 1840s (p.120), the thrust of the essays applies to the romanticized views and myths of California history, as well as those of Texas and New Mexico. San Diegans and Californians in general have embraced myths about the Spanish and Mexican periods, just as Texans have about the battle of the Alamo (a subject of one of the essays). Romantic notions in today’s California pertain to life in Spanish California, its focus upon presidios and missions while ignoring or deprecating its civil settlements and everyday inhabitants, and myths concerning the life and achievements of Father Junípero Serra while ignoring the work of Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén.
Everyone should benefit from careful reading of each of these essays, which bring important ideas and research to a wider audience. Collectively and individually, Weber’s constructive essays should be considered and used by scholars and laymen to correct misconceptions, destroy myths, and encourage critical thinking to promote better understanding of a more truthful historical experience of the Southwest under Spain and Mexico.