The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo transferred the northern half of Mexico to US control.* It is a central document in US history, as well as in Mexican history. The “Mexican cession” as it is somewhat euphemistically called, is central to the construction of the US nation. Forgetting the cession is central to the White supremacist project of defining the US as an Anglo-White nation, while remembering the cession is central to a Mexican American identity that says the Mexican people are indigenous to this country and have a claim on an American identity that is grounded in deeper right than that of the White majority who descend from European immigrants. Interpreting the meaning of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Mexican cession are on the table in today’s debates about Mexican immigration and also about the Spanish language. In the Anglo-White narrative, the Mexican-American war (which historians agree was intentionally instigated by the US so it could take territory) has somehow managed to be turned into a story about Mexican aggression (“Remember the Alamo”) and is seen as an inevitable part of Manifest Destiny and the God-sanctioned White control of North America.
In a standard Mexican-American history, the Treaty is cited not only as transferring territorial control (“we did not cross the border, the border crossed us”) but as guaranteeing the full rights of citizenship for Mexicans in the Untied States, including the right to speak Spanish.
The Treaty, with its guarantees of citizenship and property rights, is also tied to the longstanding practice of defining at least some Mexican Americans as White and to the “other White” political strategy that dominated Mexican American politics until the 1960s, as well as to the ongoing questions about racial classifications of Mexicans.
When I read something that said the Treaty did NOT guarantee the right to speak Spanish, I dug around to find the treaty itself. It turns out, the Treaty does NOT mention Spanish at all one way or the other, although at the time the right of citizenship was interpreted as implying the right to conduct public business in a language you understand. The language debates came later; more about that below.
I also discovered that the Treaty tells us other things about the history of the United States, especially about American Indians and the multi-lateral nature of history in what is now the South Western US. You can read the text of the treaty on a government documents site here and it is also copied in a somewhat more readable form on a blog site here, along with another map.
Here is my short summary of what the treaty says**:
- Mexicans in the territory previously belonging to Mexico can stay where they are or they can move to Mexico but still retain their property.
- Those who remain can be Mexican citizens or US citizens but have to choose within a year; the default is US citizenship.
- Property rights dating from before the treaty are “inviolably respected.” [In case you don’t know, enforcement of this provision varied by region, and many Mexicans lost their land and/or were driven out of the territory by violent White mobs in some areas, while Mexicans remained landholding elites in others.]
- Those who do not choose Mexican citizenship will have the full rights of US citizenship including “free enjoyment of their liberty and property, and secured in the free exercise of their religion without restriction.”
- The US agrees to prevent incursions into Mexico of “savage tribes” in US territory with the same diligence as the US is protected. [NOTE: I found this allusion to the ongoing Indian wars to be a reminder of the multi-lateral character of history.]
- It is illegal to purchase “any Mexican, or any foreigner residing in Mexico, who may have been captured by Indians” or any property stolen by Indians. The US promises to try to rescue any people or property captured by Indians. [Again, multi-lateral history.]
- Lots of sections on the rules of warfare if war breaks out.
- Lots of sections on ending the war, removing troops, defining boundaries, guaranteeing free transport through waterways and border areas.
Well, what about the Spanish language? The Treaty does not mention language at all. In practice, everyone interpreted the treaty as implying that public business would be conducted in Spanish as needed. Official documents in the ceded territory were printed in both Spanish and English for the first 10-30 years after annexation. The 1849 Constitution of California stated that all bills would be printed in both Spanish and English.
English dominance happens later. The short version is that the Anglo immigrants poured in and took over and as part of their dominance, re-defined the original inhabitants as foreigners. Language policy advocate James Crawford provides an instructive copy of the debates at the 1878 convention to revise the California constitution. This convention had no Spanish-speaking delegate and was dominated by a nativist Workingman’s party that was hostile to Chinese, among others. It not only eliminated the 1849 guarantee of bilingual documents, but required that official proceedings in California be printed ONLY in English, the first “English only” rule in the US that lasted until 1966. This is a state that had almost no English-speakers until the 1848 Gold Rush. Spanish-speakers had been dominant, and many people spoke indigenous American languages. (Neither the Spanish-speakers nor the English-speakers discussed Indigenous languages and Indigenous citizenship rights in this convention.) Opponents of the English-only provision in the 1878 debate argued that the Treaty’s guarantee of citizenship required being able to read the laws and participate in judicial proceedings in a language one could understand. English-only advocates called Spanish-speakers “foreigners.” Opponents of English-only said: “Do you call the native population of this state foreigners?” They called attention to Michigan, where laws were printed in English and German and to Wisconsin, where laws were printed in English, Germany and Norwegian. They lost.
* The transfer of land occurred in several phases. First, slave-owning Anglo-American immigrants to Texas in alliance with elite Tejanos seceded from Mexico in 1836 because Mexico was trying to enforce its anti-slavery laws and sought to prohibit immigration of more Anglo-Americans into the area. The US annexed Texas in 1845 with the approval of Anglo-Texans largely to block the expansion of Texas as a separate power to the West. The US instigated border dispute over the land west of Texas claimed by both Mexico and the US/Texas as a pretext for a war with Mexico in 1848. Although Mexico was completely defeated militarily and US marines occupied Mexico City, the US (in a controversial move) declined to take over all of Mexico, and settled for the northern half, basically because they thought trying to govern a densely-populated Spanish-speaking area would be difficult. The Gadsen purchase was made in 1853 to obtain terrain that would be more favorable for the trans-continental railroad. It is interesting in itself to see the different versions of maps that are drawn to sketch this history.
** Figuring out exactly what the treaty says is complicated by the fact that Congress deleted parts of the treaty before approval and there was a follow-up Protocol of Querétaro that clarified the consequences of these excisions. A site that contains both the full text of the treaty and the portions deleted is here. You can read the text of the treaty on a government documents site here and it is also copied in a somewhat more readable form on a blog site here, along with another map. If you want to see a digital facsimile there is one here although watch out, the big “download” button is an ad, not the treaty. There is also a nice map plus a link to a mildly funny clip about the Gadsen purchase and other treaties here.