In ‘Rewriting the West,’ Guernica Magazine Probes American Mythology
In a collection of reported and personal essays, edited by the Center Media Fellow Michelle García, writers explore the origins of the American West narrative and mythology and its distorting effect on national identity and politics.
“We wanted to look at the issues of the region on other terms.”Illustrations: Jia Sung for Guernica
Should the Texas uprising of 1835-36 be considered a battle for independence? Or something else? Will demographic changes upturn the a western narrative that locates whites at the center? Why is the region the American “West” at all, if it was once the North of the Mexican empire, or the eastern landing point for Asian migrants?
“Rewriting the West” was guest-edited by the New York and Texas-based journalist Michelle García, who is a 2018-19 Western Journalism Fellow with the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Financial support from the Center provided support for García to commission and edit the essays with Guernica, a nonprofit magazine, and to plan a series of related public events.
This series was originally conceived as a response to our nation’s rigid borders, as evidenced by a presidential campaign that demonized Mexicans and U.S. Latinos, and an administration that has encoded its ideology in a symbolic border wall. But that point of view is a defensive approach, one that cedes a region’s history and people to a political moment, to a westward gaze from Washington, and to borders that hold the American mind hostage. We wanted to look at the issues of the region on other terms.
In this special issue of Guernica, we rewrite the West by relocating it at the center of its own history, looking at the people who live in this region as the protagonists instead of the “others,” revealing a far more expansive image of this place.
“The Lucky Ones,” Adriana Gallardo
A reporter and editor for ProPublica, Gallardo describes how work brought her back to the Rio Grande River, where she had arrived in the US as a young child to undocumented Mexican parents. It was the first time she’d returned to the scene, and it led her to reassess the defining story of her life. “The gaps in my story came looking for me, making themselves known,” she writes. “And when they did, I began to tell the story on my body” – through a series of symbolic tattoos etched by her brother.
“The Alamo is a Rupture,” Raul Ramos
A Yale-educated historian takes aim at the heroic story of the 13-day standoff at the Alamo in 1836, when Texas separatists fought off Mexican troops and famously fought to the last man. “Lost in the magnanimous description of the Alamo,” Ramos writes, “is the fact that many of the so-called Texians were immigrant, naturalized Mexicans: whites who had wandered west at the invitation of Mexico.” But the memorialization of the legendary battle, he writes, serves to cast Mexicans as foreigners and these newcomers as rightful Texans.
“Death of a Dream,” Michelle García
García’s meditation on Latino identity begins at the annual parade on the San Antonio river celebrating Texas’s war of independence. Why, she asks her uncle, do Latinos celebrate battles that demonize Mexicans? “The Anglos are celebrating they won,” he replies, “The Mexicans are celebrating that we’re still here.”
“The Best Kind of People,” Fernanda Santos
In Phoenix, Santos writes that “the struggles over diversity unfold out in the open in Arizona, where demographic changes are palpable and irreversible,” with the state currently on a path to a plurality-Latino population by 2030. Santos was in Arizona as a reporter for The New York Times when the state passed a series of increasingly draconian measures against undocumented immigrants, and “Sheriff Joe” Arpaio gained a national profile with his tough-on-crime policies. In her essay, she explores how citizenship is just one marker in a larger “plotline of who does and doesn’t belong.”
“Remapping LA,” Carolina A. Miranda
A Los Angeles Times art and architecture writer explores the cross-currents of culture and identity that formed the city we know today. She argues that “the most LA thing ever,” might not be, for example, Korean tacos, but a Chinatown gas station that combines Spanish Mission tiles with wavy, Han-style Chinese rooflines. She traces the remnants of long-gone indigenous settlements, and the competing colonial street grids – Anglo aligned with the cardinal points, Spanish diagonal to them – that still mark the downtown area, and the way the remaining Spanish-style plazas offer a convening space in a multicultural city.
Public Events and Digital Outreach
García says that the project is also a participatory series that seeks to engage the public – especially millennials and the children of immigrants – through events and digital engagement.
In January, García and Carolina Miranda were part of a public event at the University of Southern California. Similar events are planned for Texas and New York later this year.
Despite persistent efforts by the U.S. government to eradicate Indigenous farming and ranching practices, they are regaining currency in an American West stressed by drought, diminishing resources and climate change.