Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Church and State

I'm really annoyed by how people keep violating the separation of church and state. A public elementary school in Georgia kept leading students in Christian prayer, and harassed students for not praying. It's really horrible that they keep perpetuating this mistaken belief that America is a Christian nation. It is not. There are Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, etc. who have religious rights too. The 1st Amendment is about freedom from religion, as much as freedom of religion. The government is not supposed to allow teachers to proselytize to students like this. If you want to teach your kids Christianity, then send them to Bible school or a private religious school; keep your faith out of our public institutions, which are supposed to be for everyone!

I personally am agnostic and went through a Texas public school education. They didn't do daily prayers at my schools, though they did have "invocations" at the graduation ceremony, and I was outraged and appalled to be expected to bow my head and listen to somebody talk about "our Lord and savior." He's YOUR Lord and savior, not mine, and this isn't a freaking church, you asshole!

Anyway, on PBS recently I watched a TV special on Latino Americans, and the first episode reminded me of this issue in historical context. (I've only seen two episodes out of six so far.) The first episode is called "Foreigners in Their Own Lands", a title that is rather inaccurate. The story is about Hispanic people fighting with the Anglos from the United States for the same land. The title seems to ignore the fact that the conflict is between two colonial forces, who are BOTH foreigners to the land. Yes, these peoples lived in North American for centuries by then, but the land didn't really belong to either of them; it belonged to the Native Americans who got caught in the middle of this imperial conflict.

The episode is not all bad, though. It does mention the Native Americans in the context of the Spanish Mission System in colonial California. Since the 1500s, Spain had colonies in the Americas. As the British and French established colonies on North America too, Spain decided to strengthen its claim by sending settlers to the northern parts of its territories. They also sent missionaries to spread Catholicism, so priests (like the guy that the Pope just made a saint) established missions along the coast of California, and female workers like Apolinaria Lorenzana organized the labor of the Native American population. The Natives were vulnerable because many of them had died off due to the new diseases introduced by colonization. So they had no real choice but to work for the missions to survive. Apolinaria dictates her memoirs to someone in her old age, and she mentions how she treated the Indians. They were worked hard and punished with whippings, much like plantation owners in the US treated African American slaves. It's really kind of awful seeing Apolinaria (in the reenactment) describing this brutality without shame, and even the guy transcribing her story looks a little horrified, but chooses not to say anything as he continues recording her story. This kind of stuff probably happened in many parts of Spanish territory like in Texas and the southwest.

Anyway, Mexicans win their independence from Spain, and decide to break the power of the Catholic Church by breaking up the missions in California. The land, which was promised to the Native Americans, was instead divided up among prosperous Hispanic families living on "rancheros." These seem to be large agricultural estates where the elite Californio families get waited on by Native American servants. So Mexico did try to separate church and state, but they didn't really succeed. The episode's theme seems to be that the Californios (and the Tejanos in Texas) live there for generations establishing their own culture and heritage. Unfortunately, as the United States expands westward and its policies turn to Manifest Destiny, the whites feel entitled to come take the land by theft, treachery, and war. Californios were at first welcoming to the whites, hoping to be diplomatic, and have trading partners that would benefit their economy. Some whites were cooperative, but other new arrivals felt that they didn't have to negotiate as equals, and could take what they wanted by squatting on the land or through racial intimidation and lynching.

The story in Texas is interesting because during my Texas history course in school, the story was always told from the point of view of the American colonists instead of the Tejanos who already lived there. According to the Latino Americans special, the Tejano population were having trouble with the Native American population there, so the Mexican government thought it would be a good idea to invite white settlers from the United States, as long as the settlers agreed to abide by Mexican law. The settlers pretended they would obey Mexican law, but the pretense didn't last long. Manifest Destiny and their belief in white supremacy after all. The sad part is that Tejanos like Juan Seguin, who wanted Texas to be independent from Mexico, became allies with the white settlers, believing they could help each other. Seguin was at the Alamo, survived, and sought revenge for the Alamo massacre. He organized a revolt that actually created that independent Texas, but Seguin's former allies eventually betrayed him. The Anglos kept encroaching on Tejano property as well as committing assaults to terrorize the Tejanos. It's so frustrating that Seguin was run out of Texas to Mexico, instead of being recognized as a hero and friend. Then of course the United States goes to war with Mexico, eventually winning huge territories in the Southwest. Despite the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, promising that Mexicans in those conquered lands would have American citizenship, in practice they didn't have rights like the whites had rights. I do feel sad for those Mexican Americans to lose everything after initially trusting the whites, but my sympathy is also tempered by the fact that the Mexicans are also "foreigners" on the land, and when they had power, they oppressed the Native Americans who were there before them.

That's the ugly nature of colonial history, of course, with racism and religious intolerance. Imperial powers always claim to be bringing civilization to primitive peoples, while not acting very civilized at all. Even today, America is having trouble reconciling its nature as a nation of immigrants. I will definitely tune in to see the rest of the episodes in the series.

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