Mexicans and Muslims in the US: Pioneers to pariahs

Mexicans and Muslims in the US: Pioneers to pariahs
12 min read
10 Mar, 2017
Comment: They were the trailblazers and the indigenous; now they are the scapegoats and the demonised, writes Otman Aitlkaboud.
Muslims and Hispanics have been instrumental in building the United States of America [Getty]

President Trump's first address was lauded for what appeared to be Trump at his most presidential yet. The toning down of the combative rhetoric that typified his first month in office contributed to sycophantic praise for the president, and announcements for trillion-dollar investment in decaying US infrastructure beguiled investors - as did Trump's promise to reverse moribund American industry.

The president's conciliatory recasting did not extend to his stance on Mexicans and Muslims. For them it was business as usual, with Trump continuing his profligate promises to keep out the people he identified as out to harm the American body politic.

Insisting in his congressional address to follow through on his commitment to build a wall on the Mexican border, he also showed no signs of changing his executive order majority Muslim ban - aside from the likely removal of Iraq from the list.

His resumption of the use of the term "radical Islamic terrorism" in describing Islamist terrorism continued to irk, not least, his newly appointed National Security adviser, Lt Gen H R McMaster, and those who see the term problematic in gaining Muslim support in fighting terrorism.

Trump's Friday 26 executive order to build a wall on America's southern flank came a day before his order to ban immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries.

The proximity of the decrees was no accident. Trump's path to the White House was characterised in part by his deeply divisive presidential campaign rhetoric on Mexicans and Muslims, for which he gained considerable support.


While Trump has attempted to pass off measures that specifically target migration from Latin America and some Muslim countries as a strategy to keep out "bad people", the decision reflects a deeper collective anxiety over America's shifting identity.

It is encapsulated by a growing Hispanic American demographic that is the main driving force behind America's changing population, while its white majority is predicted to be in the minority by 2050.

Muslims, while accounting for just one percent of the US population, also feed into this dichotomy. Despite being a variegated group, the Trump administration's blanket ban on immigration initially from seven majority-Muslim countries pictures them as an existential threat. A view previously confined to the fringe right-wing now finds a more than sympathetic ear in the White House through Trump's Chief Strategist Steve Bannon - the real architect behind Trump's Muslim ban executive order.

The US administration's treatment of Muslim and Latin American immigration to America is framed within the recent context of people fleeing violence with the potential to project that violence onto Americans. 

Oppositional rhetoric surrounding immigration from Mexico in particular masks the rootedness to the US of Hispanic Americans. There are Latin American families that have endured the geopolitical tumult in North America for centuries. 

One such family is the Oteros. Lydia Otero, an associate professor in the department of Mexican-American studies at the University of Arizona, in an interview with the author Carrie Gibson, speaks of the Mexican-Americans like her, who "don't have a migration story".

The Arizona territory of Tubac are where the origins of the Otero family lie - the family was first granted land by the Spanish in the late 18th century, and witnessed the rule of three successive powers.

Following Spanish rule, Tubac was passed to Mexico after its independence from Spain in 1810, and remained Mexican during the Mexican-American war, eventually ceded to the United States five years after that conflict ended, in the US 1853 Gadsden Purchase.

The diminishing appeal of the melting-pot idea causes some Americans to actively overlook centuries of Hispanic American heritage

Families like the Oteros that had been Mexicans for four decades were given the stark choice: relinquish Mexican nationality for US citizenship or move south of the border to Mexico. The United States' incorporation of former Mexican territory following Mexico's defeat in the war meant that Hispanics were the first people to gain American citizenry across the Southwest.

Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna presided
over a Mexico that ceded half its territory to the
United States in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848)

Today's rhetoric surrounding Hispanic migration to the US exposes the oft-overlooked history of Hispanic settlement in America. It reveals itself in measures such as Arizona's SB1070 bill designed to pressure undocumented immigrants to leave their jurisdiction.

Lydia Otero speaks of how in Tucson she encountered racism in the street when a driver rolled down their window and told her to "go back to where you came from".

The diminishing appeal of the melting-pot idea causes some Americans to actively overlook centuries of Hispanic American heritage.

While feelings of besiegement from largely non-white immigration have influenced antagonism towards Hispanic Americans, the related feeling of revanchism and nativism within America's most recent election campaign succeeded in condemning Muslims to fifth-column status.

The designation first advanced following the 9/11 attacks, gained traction in 2015 after terrorist attacks in San Bernadino and Florida, and continued to become more entrenched with each escalating horror of the Islamic State group - most viscerally felt when the group targeted the cities in both France and Belgium in 2015 and 2016.

These fears have been compounded by increasing economic insecurity in America. Significant sections of the population still reel not only from the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis but the long-term effects of deindustrialisation.

The ability for a presidential candidate as unorthodox as Donald Trump to connect with a broad tranche of Americans signified the great silos of discontent that were ever-present, but was amplified by the inability of many to realise reckless promises given to them by successive governments to fulfil that most nebulous of concepts - "the American dream".

In the face of uncertainty, Donald Trump invokes American exceptionalism in his "Make America Great Again" rallying cry. Offering simple solutions to grandiose promises, his proclamation gained currency not only among the left-behinds of American capitalism, but also among the middle class harbouring feelings of victimhood and resentment after being educated into not only a sense of hope but entitlement.

In America’s southern border regions, economic insecurity mutates into reflexive fears of America's "other". Here it is anxiety felt by Americans who see in Latin America's clandestine exiles the foreshadowing of a shifting American identity, increasingly unmoored from the country's perceived roots in the global north.

It was here along America's contested southern frontier that Christian and Islamic Spanish groups, reeling from the upheavals of civil conflict that separated them in the Iberian peninsula, first had their impact in the New World.

The coveted discovery of an alternative Spanish route to Asia and the East, countering the Islamic world's dominance of the spice trade was given new impetus in 1492 with the end of Islamic rule in Granada. Upon the Nasrid dynasty's ruler Muhammed XII's (Boadbil) capitulation to Isabella's Castilian forces, the Catholic monarch and her husband, King Ferdinand of Aragon, were able to direct their attention to patronage of a voyage that would not just change the fortunes of their joint Spanish kingdoms but between Christendom and the Islamic world.

Nasrid dynasty leader Muhammed XII's surrender to Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon are imagined in the Spanish artist Francisco Pradilla Ortiz's 1882 painting La Rendición de Granada (The surrender of Granada) [Public domain]

Islam's earliest connection with America may be seen in the context of its defeat by Catholic forces in the Iberian peninsula, with Catholicism's victory heralding a new epoch of discovery for Spain and Portugal in the Americas.

Muslims in their defeat in Spain played a role that went beyond just offering space for a Catholic Spain, no longer inhibited by civil war, to explore the Americas.

One of the major points of departure for Spanish explorers to the Americas was the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, an Andalusian town that was granted to the nobleman Alonso Pérez de Guzmán in 1295 for his defence of Tarifa from Muslims during the Spanish reconquest.

Widely known as "Guzman el bueno", he is Spain's most famed Christian knight, and from whom Spain's oldest dukedom, Medina-Sidonia, is descended.

The Pérez de Guzman family controlled towns in Andalusia which were fundamental in the discovery of the Americas. The port town of Palos de la Frontera, from which Christopher Columbus set off on 3 August 1492 on his maiden voyage to the Americas, was granted by the King of Castile to Alvar Pérez de Guzmán in 1379.

Symbolising Spain's complex relationship with its Muslim inhabitants during the Middle Ages, which saw Muslims side with Christian factions against other Christians and Muslim emirs, it was revealed by Alonso Pérez de Guzmán's direct descendent, the late Duchess of Medina Sidonia, that the celebrated Christian knight was in fact born a Muslim in the Moroccan Merinid kingdom.

In a 2005 documentary, the duchess unveiled a licence granted in 1288 that enabled Guzmán to export wheat overseas to his parched original homeland.

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Among the first people from the Old World to set foot in America's now contentious southern frontier, was a black man born a Muslim, from Azemour, Morocco.

A slave given the name "Esteban" by his Christian captors, he was part of a Spanish expedition to discover territory west of Florida, landing in the modern-day American state on 12 April 1528. 

Led by Pámfilo de Narváez, Esteban would become one of just four survivors of Narváez's ill-fated expedition which claimed the lives of up to six hundred sailors.

In 1513, Azemour, on Morocco's Atlantic coast, was captured by the Portuguese from Morocco's ailing Wattasid dynasty. The Portuguese held on to the town for a further 28 years.

Esteban's birth name is not known, nor is it known how he came to be a slave - he had either been captured by the Portuguese or sold himself into slavery in exchange for food, as inhabitants of Azemour did following a severe drought and famine in 1521.

Setting off from the Sanlucar de Baremeda port on 17 June, 1527, Esteban's voyage, sponsored by the Spanish king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, followed three decades of Castilian financing exploration of the Americas. 

In November 1528, six months after landing in Florida, Esteban and up to 80 other survivors of the Narváez expedition, sailing in makeshift vessels, ran aground in modern-day Galveston Island, Texas. The native Americans they met held them captive for six years, after which only four original survivors remained.

Following an outbreak of dysentery the four, Esteban, Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo and Dorantes, were forced by their captors to become healers.

Cabeza de Vaca, in his chronicle La Relación published in 1542 and dedicated to King Charles V, wrote of their transformation into medicine men. "Our fame spread throughout the area, and all the Indians who heard about it came looking for us so that we could cure them and bless their children... Up to this time Dorantes and the black man had not performed any healings, but we all became healers because so many people insisted."

De Vaca relays that the four escaped their captors in September 1534. Their reputation preceding them, they were free to wander and were held in high esteem by tribes across the territory they traversed in America's South-west.

Esteban had reportedly learned six local dialects and was entrusted to act as both guide and mediator between the Spaniards and the indigenous population. Cabeza de Vaca, revealed in La Relación: "The black man always spoke to them, ascertaining which way to go and... all the other things we wanted to know."

In 1536, the four survivors encountered other Europeans for the first time in eight years. Spanish soldiers on a slave-raiding mission in San Miguel de Culiacán in todays Sinaloa, Mexico, escorted the four to Mexico city - where on 24 July their arrival was greeted with much pomp and ceremony by the viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza.

Esteban's linguistic talents came to the attention of viceroy de Mendoza, who hired him as a scout and interpreter for Franciscan Fray Marcos de Niza's 1539 expedition, to search for "The Seven Cities of Cibola".

De Mendoza's sponsorship of the expedition was heavily influenced by the accounts that Esteban received from encounters with tribes across America's Southwest -describing these rumoured seven settlements to contain great wealth.

If he believed it himself, Esteban must have hoped that such a discovery would have heralded a complete transfiguration in his status from lowly slave to acclaimed explorer. 

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado continued Esteban's journey
to explore from Colorado to Kansas
[CC/Billy Hathorn]

Esteban headed his own division, ahead of Marcos de Niza's expedition, relaying information on the local area and tribes to the friar through messengers.

Esteban's amelioration was not to be - his encounter with the local Zuni tribes of Hawikuh, south of New Mexico's Zuni Pueblo, was ill-fated. He was reportedly felled by Zuni arrows as he attempted to escape their captivity.

Upon hearing the news of Esteban's death, de Niza abandoned his mission, only to accompany Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's expedition a year later, to explore the claims Esteban had heard. 

No treasure was found but de Coronado did continue the path that Esteban first journeyed, leading him to explore territory that stretched from the Colorado river in the west to Kansas in the east.

But the fact remains, communities that are now derided in the US were its original trailblazers, their explorations in America's Southwest preceding Anglo-Saxon settlement by more than 300 years


Anglo-Saxon adroitness over America's "Wild West" territory - much of it within its southwest, spearheaded a manifest destiny creed, and the belief in it, that ordained English-speaking pioneers to settle places previously thought to be uninhabitable for large scale settlement.

But the fact remains, communities that are now derided in the US were its original trailblazers, their explorations in America's Southwest preceding Anglo-Saxon settlement by more than 300 years.

Eighty years before Trump's election-winning "Make America Great Again" battle-cry, the writer Langston Hughes had his poem Let America be America Again published in Esquire Magazine.

In it, Hughes asks for America to provide for all its citizens: 

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the black man bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

The poem, part denunciation, part rallying cry, entreated a change to the lot of all Americans. It was an exhortation for an accepting version of America in the face of the uncertainty that the great depression of the 1930s had unleashed on its citizens.

In an age of uncertainty, where America's diverse but homogenised citizenry faces assaults from those who feel that it is a nation for a particular creed, America ought to revert to its original inclusive ideals of liberty, equality and freedom.

It is a change that is needed, not only because it is principled, but failure to do so would be a dishonest assessment of the central role in America's founding story - a story written by this America's chief targets of its anti-other rancour, Hispanics and Muslims.

Otman Aitlkaboud is an Executive Committee member of the Arab-Jewish Forum working on improving relationships between Arabs and Jews in the UK and beyond. He formerly worked at conflict resolution think tank Next Century Foundation and for the European Union External Action service in Armenia.

Follow Otman Aitlkaboud on Twitter: @OtmanA

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.