The Spanish and American Identity


Essay published in the Catalogue of the exhibition Los valencianos y los Estados Unidos (Barrels y Estels. Els valencians i els USA). Valencia, Museu Valencià d’Etnologia, 2014.

Los españoles y la identidad norteamericana (Spanish version)


The United States can be considered the most complete outcome of the Enlightenment: the Enlightenment ideal come true, a political community in which (almost) all the dreams of tolerance, freedom and autonomy dreamed of in the period were realized. This explains why, right from the country’s foundation, the United States became a symbol of modernity.


This relatively widespread thought has given way to some ideas on the identity of the United States. One of them has to do with the country’s exceptional nature, which has come to be known as American Exceptionalism. As much as a nation, the US is an idea or an ideology, in the enlightened sense of the term and not the Marxist one. This ideology is summed up as a ‘creed’ synthesized into the foundational texts, i.e. the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The identity of the United States is embodied in its political definition. Therefore, American identity does not mean belonging with a specific community of any other type, whether historical or cultural. It means voluntarily adhering to a set of universal principles. Hence the exceptionality, the openness and integrative nature, and the mission to safeguard the constituting principles. To some extent, the US represents the realization of the modern utopia.

From a different viewpoint, this exceptionality would not be such because the distinctive features of the US do not stem from ideological abstraction but from the political re-elaboration of the British legacy, which does have a specific historic reality: customs and a language –English–, Protestantism, the political constitution of the United Kingdom. Liberal and democratic, the political ideal of the Enlightenment was built on the basis of that culture. Any attempt to detach it from its foundations would be foolhardy, as it would either deprive the political realm of any fundamental basis or it would project the same ideals upon societies that are not yet ready to implement and assimilate it.

It is not up to us to choose either of these two approaches. However, we do notice that Spain seems to play no part in neither of them. If it did, it would be a negative one, particularly with the 1898 events and the subsequent intellectual and political interpretation thereof.

1898 is indeed a milestone in the relationship between the US and Spain and also in the conception these countries forged of themselves. With the Cuban War or the Spanish-American War, the United States took its first step towards playing a leading role on the world’s stage. Until then, it had been a self-centred country, save for its territorial expansion eastwards and southwards. Using the term ‘Imperialism’ is possibly wrong, for, in 1898, the US did not really launch a strictly imperialist campaign, as was the case with many European countries designing their ‘imperial’ expansion in response to an identity decline that would lead them towards nationalism. Rather, the intervention in Cuba was the result of the United States’ self-confidence. This is why the US victory in 1898 did not signify a crisis of modernity but rather its triumph.

For the defeated opponent, the ‘Disaster of 1898’ came to unequivocally prove that Modernity in Spain was just superficial, something that had not managed to change the country’s fundamentally pre-modern (and even anti-Enlightenment) nature. While the American political community succeeded, the Spanish nation –born to the 1812 constitution– proved inexistent. The former super-power, now defeated, and the new super-power, all victorious, each represented a particular position in History.

And yet…




Spain’s contribution to the independence of the US has only been acknowledged in recent years. And although the facts have not yet managed to make their way into common knowledge or school manuals, Spain’s decisive role can no longer be denied. The Spanish Crown took its time to make the decision to support the settlers. On the one hand, Spain’s attitude was critical, given its vast and strategic territories in the west (the Floridas) and the south (Texas and New Mexico). On the other, the independence of the English colonies could become a bad example for the Spanish territories in America. And a new war with England was risky, however much the Spaniards wanted to take revenge for the Seven Years’ War.

The American uprising aroused intellectual interest among the Spanish of the Enlightenment, which can be seen, for example, in the reflections of Francisco de Saavedra, a friend of the Gálvez family, or in the friendship between the Count of Aranda, then ambassador in Paris, and Benjamin Franklin, representative of the Thirteen Colonies in France. After the War, Franklin became the first foreigner to be a member of the Real Academia de la Historia following an invitation by the Count of Campomanes. In the reflections on private property and the tyranny exerted by the members of the School of Salamanca in 16th century Spain, some have seen an antecedent to some of Locke’s ideas which later formed the basis of ‘American ideology’ (moreover, Enlightenment advocates, and particularly Locke, had read The Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn, written in the 12th century by the Spanish Muslim Ibn Tufail: a fictionalized reflection about natural reason with a melancholic tone). Spain’s intellectual contribution to American democracy therefore reached its climax with the invitation sent to Franklin by the Madrid Academy.

Aranda had also understood that the United States was bound to hold great power and, concerned with the consequences, envisioned to reform the Spanish monarchy and turn it into a sort of Commonwealth avant la lettre. Had this project gone ahead, the independence of the United States would have changed Spain and most likely the face of the earth. The fact is that Spain had to make a more modest, though not less risky decision. In 1779 Floridablanca signed the Treaty of Aranjuez with the French rulers, and Spain went to war. From then on, the Americans were helped by Spain in several ways.

The new situation forced the British to divert troops and efforts from the American front. There were also direct interventions from the Spanish territories in America, such as those by Bernardo de Gálvez to ensure control of the Lower Mississippi River, of western Florida (with the taking of Mobila and Panzacola, present-day Mobile and Pensacola, in Alabama) and of the Caribbean. The Spanish troops were also involved in several clashes in Louisiana, and Spain’s help proved to be important in the decisive Battle of Yorktown. Bernardo de Gálvez is usually referred to, and Juan de Miralles should not be forgotten either, a trader and one of Spain’s secret agents during the war, and someone who managed to win Washington’s favour.

Yet, the caution of the Count of Floridablanca, so annoying to John Jay, representative of the Colonies in Madrid, resulted in more discreet, often clandestine help. Money and different materials were channelled through various businesses, including that of the Basque businessman Diego de Gardoqui, who collaborated with José de Jaudenes y Nebot, who later became a representative of his country in the United States. Gardoqui, who accompanied Washington in his inauguration, was an example of the commercial ties between Spain and the North American colonies. Professor Reyes Calderón has estimated that in 1777 donations by the Spanish government to the American insurgents accounted for 5.9% of the Crown’s revenue, which gives a clear picture of Spain’s commitment. With the Treaty of Paris putting an end to the war in 1783, Spain reached the peak of its territorial power in the Americas. Thanks to this, Spain was also able to recover more easily than France.

As the understanding of the crucial role of the Spanish Crown in the independence of the United States grows, the interest aroused in Spain by the democratic experiment also rises. Not everyone expressed the fascination with the United States felt by the liberal Valentin de Foronda, consul in Philadelphia. Yet, when the time came for Spain to discuss its own Constitution and become a modern political nation, the example of the 1787 Constitution was always present (a representative from New Mexico, Pedro Baptista Pino, attended the Cadiz debate, although he was late and had to leave his contribution in a statement, Exposición, which he published himself).

Later, Tocqueville’s reflection on democracy in America found avid readers in Spain and across Latin America. By then, in 1840, the goal was no longer to start a revolution like in 1812, but to work out the enigma behind the relationship between democracy and freedom. The Americans seemed to have deciphered it without much difficulty as the logical basis of their national constitution. It took the Europeans –the Spaniards included–more than a century to learn that lesson.




Spain’s contribution to the independence of the United States –very much in line with the Enlightenment– would not have been possible without its presence in North America. In 1783, the Spanish Monarchy dominated, at least in theory, almost two thirds of present-day United States. It is true, though, that much of Louisiana, i.e. the Mississippi River basin, ended up in Spanish hands thanks to the vagaries of international politics. The rest, however, –and the rest is gigantic– was the result of a specific political and cultural project.

The expansion towards the south and the west of the United States required roads that gradually weaved a network of political and cultural unity. The conquerors themselves, now turned into explorers, played a key role in this task. Juan Bautista de Anza opened up the Camino de Anza (Anza Trail) making San Francisco accessible by land and thus avoiding the difficult navigation of California’s coast. As from 1598, Juan de Oñate started opening up the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, with over 2,000 kilometres linking Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos with the towns north of New Spain. The Spanish military engineers helped plan the Camino de Santa Fe to the east of Saint Louis and the west of San Gabriel (Los Angeles). Basic for eastward expansion, this road was re-named the Old Spanish Trail. Today, U.S. Route 101 follows the former Camino Real de Anza along the coastline between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Among the reasons behind this further territorial exploration by the Spanish were curiosity and the need to get to know the new territories. Carlos III would later found the Archivo de Indias in Seville; its first director, Juan Bautista Muñoz, started to collect data from the maps of America. Thanks to the work of cartographers like Enrico Martínez, information was plentiful. And data only continued to grow with expeditions to the West Coast of the United States, like those of Gaspar de Portolá, Juan Francisco Bodega (born in Mexico) and Alejandro Malaspina between 1789 and 1794. Malaspina himself, who was well aware of what he was talking about, described the expeditions as being «political and scientific.»

The Spaniards sometimes found themselves in extraordinary situations, as was the case of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions between 1528 and 1536 in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Their unique total exposure to a different culture was reported in their chronicles Naufragios. This direct experience of something that was completely alien and with a huge impact on European culture was lived most intensely by those who were engaged in evangelizing and the implementation of Western civilization to Native Americans. Without the efforts made by Jesuits and Franciscans, New Mexico may have been relinquished by the Crown, as it was not a particularly profitable region. The missionaries, on the other hand, could not be indifferent to the reality of American life. The Jesuits began to publicize Chinese culture in Europe, and the missionaries in South America became fascinated by the cultures and languages they discovered. In North America, also the Spanish «fathers» left accounts of their interest in the native peoples, perhaps less sophisticated but equally complex and dignified. Hence texts such as Historia de los triunfos de nuestra santa fe (1645) by the Jesuit Andrés Pérez de Ribas, who as a young man explored the Four Rivers area in northern Sinaloa (Mexico).

It is difficult not to let our imagination carry us away when we think about the life of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino –the ‘riding priest’, as ‘his’ Indians called him, his friends from the ranch near Dolores– in the immensity of Sonora and Arizona… American landscape is here configured as something new, radically different from Europe in its dimension and nature. Spain, a miniature continent –more food for thought–, might have prepared these men for what they were to find on the other side of the Atlantic. Perhaps we could see here the origin of Chateaubriand’s American romantic exaltation and that of some of the keys to American landscape painting, overwhelmed by the proportions of nature. And links could also be found with the sensitivity of Thoreau, America’s Rousseau, and even with Walt Whitman’s pantheism.

However, all this is far removed from the more sober and realistic vision that the Spaniards had of the American scenery and world, one that was also impregnated with Christianity. For the Spanish, almost anti-romantic by nature, there were ‘Barbarians’ rather than ‘savages’ (sauvages, sounds nicer in French). Yet, similarities can be found with the way some 19th century Europeans perceived Spain: a country alien to history and uncorrupted by civilization. It is worth noting the analogy between the image of Spain and that of the United States, both being scenarios of the exotic fantasies of European Romanticism (with some almost humorous nuances: remember Washington Irving playing the part of the American Romantic in Granada; and then came the members of the Brigade during the Civil War, in search of adventure.)

A balance was reached in the 20th century when Willa Cather reflected on American landscape and the traces left behind by former dwellers. In her novels, the transcendent dimension of American nature is internalized into an ethical project. And it is precisely there that the memory of the Spanish legacy reappears: discreet evocation in The Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House, but in the foreground in Death Comes for the Archbishop, a European Jesuit in New Mexico being the main character.




The territories in northern New Spain did not live up to the expectations of the Spaniards. There was no buried treasure to change the fate of those bold enough to undertake their exploitation. Native Americans soon realized what prompted the foreigners, and learned to handle those who ventured into their land by inviting them to go ‘further and further’ in search of riches and legendary cities. Historian John Francis Bannon, S.J., spoke of the ‘incurable optimism’ of the Spanish conquistadores. To a great extent, it was their optimism that caused them to continue northwards (New Mexico, Colorado) and from there to the Northeast (Texas) and Northwest (Arizona and California).

As happened in all of the Spanish expansion through the Americas, the Crown’s territorial ambition and the evangelizing also played a crucial role here. As is well known, the format of the Spanish colonial expansion has little to do with the occupation model of settlers in the north of the US. The Crown imposed a strict planning system, centralized by officials and the Court, with specific requirements and conditions. Apart from economic affairs, territorial and strategic aspects were critical, particularly when the territory that eventually came to be called Provincias Internas, north of New Spain, became a defence against natives further north and Europeans, basically the French from Louisiana.

Still, the role of individual initiative cannot be overlooked. It was characteristic of subjects who, in addition to their status as settlers first and pioneers later –in other words, brave people unafraid of the unknown– had the necessary entrepreneurial skills: the expeditions required organisation and investment, and political capabilities too in trying to keep the balance between the interests of the Monarch in Madrid and those of the Viceroy. Such conditions were met by great characters who left an imprint in American history, like Juan Ponce de León –the very first of them all–, Hernando de Soto, the Portuguese Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, Juan de Oñate and Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, the first European to see the beauty of the Colorado River. The missionaries, on their part, were moved by the fervour and urgency of their evangelizing duties. The Crown bowed to the plans of the «fathers» more than once, as happened in New Mexico.

All these very different reasons eventually contributed to erecting a huge border, to which ‘The Floridas’ –sparsely populated but fundamentally strategic– were added in the West. The Spaniards had to learn to manage a land with specific challenges due its size, inhabitants, physical features, weather conditions, and remoteness.

They knew from experience, and in their own country, what a border territory was all about: in their southward advance against the Muslims, first in Castile and then in the so-called Extremaduras, finally followed by Andalusia, the Kingdom of Granada being the only survivor. As the regions in North America occupied by the Spaniards never ceased to be a border area, it might not be an overstatement to suggest that there, in the land later known as the United States, habits and lifestyles survived typical of the roots of Spanish culture as forged from the year 800 to the late 15th century. The introduction of the originally Arabian horse, without which the American West would make no sense, was the work of the Spanish. And along with the horse came transhumance practices and figures (the cowboy, in fact) that have not entirely disappeared; some quintessentially American forms of games and shows of Spanish origin, such as rodeo, have not disappeared either (the Texas Longhorn breed –a symbol of Texas– is also originally Spanish).

When discussing the frontier concept, so important in the construction of American identity, one should remember the contribution of the Spanish ‘Borderlands’ in the South and West of the United States. Historian Nicolás Sánchez Albornoz liked to evoke the ‘winds of freedom’ that swept the lands of central and southern Spain –frontiers in the North American sense– during the Reconquista. Sánchez Albornoz’s  American counterpart is historian Frederick Jackson Turner, the author of the foundational essay of borderlands studies in American culture.

From two different perspectives, two ways of dealing with life with a common taste for freedom coincided in time and in what later became just one country. Needless to push reality any further and assume a subsequent synthesis. Some type of synthesis must have been done in some cases, like that of the Californios, the Californian settlers born there when the territory was not yet American. For many years they preserved –as if they were a local aristocracy– the old virtues of pride and independence of the Spanish pioneers. Then they disappeared, ‘washed away by the tide’ that reached California after the Gold Rush in 1849. But let us remember that the frontier concept, in the United States, can and must be understood from two different though not entirely contradictory perspectives.




Unlike what happened in Mexico, native populations in the north had not experienced any forms of servitude. Therefore, they were not particularly willing to accept the Spaniards’ forced proposal. Neither the encomiendas, implemented in many other American regions, nor the repartimientos were successful. The same goes for cities, an original feature in this region. Of course, the Spanish did create urban centres, some of them destined to be extremely important, like St. Augustine, the first North American city, Santa Fe and Albuquerque. They also gave their final personality to other previously founded cities, like New Orleans, rebuilt by the Spanish partly with monies from the merchant Andrés Almonester after the 1788 fire. The most French city in the United States has Spanish-style architecture and layout. For a long time, however, cities in North American territory operated more as business hubs or defences than as residential and political centres, which is rather striking indeed. Upon their arrival in North America, where a culture of predominantly Anglo-Saxon roots would eventually prevail in which the city is not the centre of social life, the Spaniards, incapable of thinking of a culture outside the city –living up to their Mediterranean idiosyncrasy–, had to come up with some original alternatives.

Among the exceptions already mentioned is Los Angeles, which dates back to 1781. But please note that El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula  –such was its first name– was not founded by priests. It was founded following recommendations by Felipe de Neve, governor of the Californias, and with an intention to counteract the detrimental effect of the missions. Indeed, cities, together with presidios (military forts) were the most commonly used forms of territorial organization, control and defence. The fact that presidios and missions come together here does not mean to say that the two projects, the military and the religious ones, were easy to reconcile. It is known, for example, that the missions were built far from the presidios in order not to expose Native Americans to the soldiers’ bad example.

And here we touch upon one of the most debated points in this part of history, namely the legacy of Spanish missionaries, including not only Franciscans but also Jesuits and Carmelites. Hence the name Carmel in Monterey Bay. Soldiers were responsible for protecting people, and missionaries for evangelizing the natives and teaching them farming and cattle-breeding techniques, construction, transportation and new ways of expression and interaction (music was essential in this transfer). Their influence was long-lasting and, until recently, some towns in New Mexico preserved some Spanish customs that were hard to find even in Spain. The cultural clash was also tragic, the consequences of the spread of diseases being devastating for the American people, who had no defences. Success depended on a variety of factors, including the exemplary nature of the missionaries –sometimes on the verge of martyrdom– and, above all, the willingness of Native Americans and their interest in what the missionaries wanted to pass on to them.

What they learned sometimes served contingency purposes. Many Native Americans learned Spanish. For a long time, it was the most spoken language in the American Southwest. Consequently, Spanish also helped isolated peoples to communicate with each other, and sometimes to convey some slogans of revolt against the Spaniards. In fact, there were several uprisings, like the one of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico between 1680 and 1692. Some other native peoples, such as the Apaches, never stopped the pressure on border territories.

We shall not idealize the missions but some missionaries, like Junípero Serra, left an indelible mark on American history and culture. Missionaries were inspired by a medieval project, a Franciscan utopia, as analyzed by James A. Sandos, one focused on poverty, devotion to God, and the holiness of life and the world around them. Their success was relative. Even today, conversion (i.e. baptism according to the practice of the Franciscans in California) is questioned for its ineffectiveness. Moreover, the missionaries did not hesitate to stand up to the Administration, as happened in almost all of the colonies of the Spanish Crown overseas. The clash was particularly strong when Enlightenment advocates looked to implement reforms for the exploitation and capitalisation of the new land, which required native populations to become emancipated from the control and subordination of the missions.

The confrontation between Felipe de Neve, governor of the two Californias, and Junípero Serra is most illustrative in this regard. Instead of him being expelled, as was the case with the Jesuits, the city of Los Angeles was founded. From these reform initiatives –which required more freedom and autonomy– a new arrangement of the land into farms and ranches based on the physical traits of the terrain was developed. The geometric and abstract mesh typical of Anglo-Saxon Americans would be superimposed on it later on. The ranch was to become one of the most distinctive forms of ownership in the American West. Whichever the case may be, one of the last medieval utopias of the western world survived until the 19th century in North America, on the Pacific coast, where dreams would be made possible only a little later, including that of restoring Christian faith in its very original forms. The Spaniards did not want to turn their North American territories into a ‘city upon a hill’, as John Winthrop did, but some of them wanted their ‘flame’ to burn much longer.

After Mexico’s secularization as of 1821 and then its annexation by the United States, missions became something different. First, a terrible mess reminiscent of a previous situation, a sort of melancholic reflection that allowed Mexicans and Americans to see themselves in a glorious past. In some cases, the new story seemed to be the continuation of the old one, like in the Battle of the Alamo, staged in one of the Spanish missions in Texas. Later, the missions provided the ideal counterpoint to the harsh colonization of the north, partly thanks to the imagination of novelists like Helen Hunt Jackson (with her very popular Ramona, 1884) and also to the work of historians such as Herbert E. Bolton, who initiated the research on the Spanish Borderlands. Bolton insisted that the history of the United States could not be understood outside the history of the other American peoples.

And then came the taste for the Spanish, more particularly the wonderful and eclectic ‘Spanish Colonial Revival’ that changed architecture, decor, design and landscaping in California and Florida in the early decades of the 20th century. It was exported to Australia and even Mexico under the somehow paradoxical name ‘Colonial California’. A radically modern lifestyle reinvented the past and projected it into something new, already evoking the postmodern world and its questions about identity, sometimes with anguish and sometimes with hedonism and even frivolity. In some ways, California seemed destined to be the real New Spain.

And so we go back to the beginning, when the Spaniards began to make sense out of that New World with splendid names drawn from fantasy, faith and politics: California (after the island in a chivalric romance, Las sergas de Esplandián), Sierra Sangre de Cristo (between Colorado and New Mexico), Texas (after the name given to Native Americans), Sierra de Sandía (in New Mexico), Colorado River, Nevada, Florida (so named for the ‘Pascua Florida’ or ‘Pascua de Resurrección’), or Santa Fe.




In 1898, Cuba saw the struggle between two countries that were also two symbols. On one hand, the United States, the super-power of the future, the heir of the modern legacy of the Enlightenment. On the other, Spain, the super-power of the past which had rejected modernity.

Like all historical syntheses, this one was partly true but largely propagandistic. But before we move on, let us focus for a moment on the term ‘power’, in the past for Spain, and in the future for what started to emerge as the United States. At this point, the paradox is that the two countries ended up sharing something that had to do with their dimension as super-powers, with their imperial nature. If the United States can be considered an ideology, in the sense explained earlier in this essay, so can Spain, that is, the Catholic Monarchy at the time. And just as Spain was the subject of an extraordinary ideological and political propaganda campaign referred to as ‘the black legend’ by a contemporary of the 1898 events, the United States also experienced something similar not much later. Both of them targeted specific aspects of the actions taken by both countries, but they particularly affected their nature, their identity. And they derived their plausibility from the fact that both countries wanted to be, at least in part, more than a political power. They had been formed from an idea, a creed, a mission.

In the late 19th century, the United States massively used that same ideological arsenal against Spain. One they would be fully returned, also from Spain. The echoes of this total accusation still reverberate today in the background; according to it, the ideological creed does not hide anything but greed, a desire for power, arrogance and contempt for others. And traces of it can also be seen in the way we imagine ourselves on either side of the Atlantic. Few countries have engaged in self-criticism so viciously as Spain and the United States.

As for what was acted out in the 1898 confrontation, we no longer live in the same world. Spain does not live up –it never did, actually – to the image of an archaic country, shut off from modernity. The United States remains one of the most modern countries in the world, but the very effects of modernity are forcing the country to face the same challenges that modernity had not anticipated. Sometimes they remind us of the challenges the Spaniards were faced with when they had to integrate languages, cultures and lifestyles that were so different from theirs. As if what preceded and led to modernity came back in a different way, as a result of its own victory. Infinitely denser and richer than we often think, the extraordinary dialogue between Spain and American identity is far from being over.



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