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Historian: Americans All Need To Study Mexico


While today's referendum in Mexico casts a spotlight on the past three decades of the country's history, our next guest would like all of us to reach much further back in our understanding of Mexican history. Gabriela Soto Laveaga is a history professor at Harvard. And she recently wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post titled "Every American Needs To Take A History Of Mexico Class." She joins us now from California, where she's visiting family.

Professor Soto Laveaga, welcome.

GABRIELA SOTO LAVEAGA: Thank you so much for having me.

SNELL: First of all, why do you think it's so important for all Americans to study the history of Mexico? What would be the benefit, in your view?

SOTO LAVEAGA: I have been teaching a version of a Mexican history class for the last 20 years. And invariably, students, especially those who are coming from border states, would say, why didn't I learn this in high school? It would have completely changed my view or even how I perceive or vote. And after two decades of listening to this, I finally sat down to write what I had been saying all along, that much of who we claim to be as a nation, so much of it is linked to the Mexican-American War. How we define ourselves as Americans and the values that that we put forth in our society have links, strong links to the mid-19th century.

SNELL: And thinking about those links and that shared history that you talk about, can you tell me about one specific event in Mexican history that you wish Americans understood better and should be studying?

SOTO LAVEAGA: Absolutely. I think for me, one of the most important ones and one that I mentioned in the op-ed is the St. Patrick's Battalion. When the U.S. and Mexico go to war, the U.S. asks for volunteers, as many as 50,000 volunteers to go fight in Mexico. And among the many volunteers who join up are recently arrived refugees from Ireland, who are coming because of famine. And at the time, the Irish were not seen as good citizens in U.S. society. They were seen as dirty, uneducated, prone to criminality. They lived in ethnic ghettos. So they weren't perceived as being wholesome citizens or those who are wanted.

But Irish join these - this call - or answer the call as volunteers in large part because they want to be included in American society. But when they go off to fight in Mexico and once they cross the border and they're fighting and - they realize that this is an unjust war. And the Irish flip sides. And, they join the Mexican side. They formed the Irish Battalion, composed not simply of Irish but predominantly Irish. They - ultimately, when the U.S. wins the Mexican-American War, they're tried for treason and are executed. But in Mexico, they are seen as heroes because it was unwanted immigrants who rose up and had a clear opinion about what was happening on the ground.

Read entire article at NPR