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Ways of Seeing: Historical perspectives on migration

In preparation for a manuscript workshop this week, I read a draft of a book about Texas history by a woman named Sarah Rodriguez. I am a historian of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands (and a Texan by birth), so my friend and colleague asked if I would attend a workshop to give my comments on her book before she published it. I was happy to oblige.
The risk with writing about Texas, U.S., and Mexican history or a book about the Texas Revolution is that the topic has been well covered by historians. It is old hat, as we Texans say. But this book is different, and it shifts our understanding of how U.S. history unfolded.
It turns out that Stephen F. Austin, the man who brought the first U.S. Anglos to settle in Texas in 1821, fully intended to flee the United States, along with 300 others, to become Mexican citizens. That’s right, Americans fled the United States for Mexico with the intention to immigrate there, not settle Texas for the United States.
Facing huge debt and in the wake of economic turmoil, Austin and his compatriots felt as if they could no longer prosper living in the United States, so they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, hoping for a better life and the Mexican government welcomed them with open arms. It was not until a good 15 years later, when a second wave of settlers entered Mexican-Tejas hoping to bring slaves into a country that did not allow slavery, that a series of rebellions resulted in the Texas Revolution and prompted secession from Mexico, ultimately leading to Texas’s annexation to the U.S. and then the U.S.-Mexican war.
The rebellions of the 1830s, it turns out, happened much to the dismay of the original 300 settlers. They were ambivalent about secession from Mexico because they had made it their home.
Why does this matter and why would I write about it here? It matters because the narrative that we hear in our history classes growing up is that Americans all embraced a notion of Manifest Destiny and happily “settled” — or more realistically, robbed — indigenous, Mexican, and other diverse peoples of their land over the course of the 19th century with the intention of expanding the United States. U.S. Westward expansion was bound to happen, we are told. But it wasn’t.
In fact, it turns out that originally Americans felt the need to flee the U.S. for Mexico. This might seem a bit ironic, given that migration streams have shifted from north-to-south to a steady stream from south-to-north. And Americans seem to be in a bit of panic about that.
Conservatives tout that one way to “make America great again” is to build a wall to stem the tide of these migrants crossing the border. This history tells us that that America hasn’t always been great, and when it wasn’t for Stephen F. Austin and the 300 others who traveled with him, our southern neighbor made space for them. As one of the largest nations on the continent at the time (second only to Brazil), the Mexican government officials viewed migration as a means for making their country stronger. So, what’s our problem?
Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history at the University of Vermont and the David and Dana Dornsife Fellow for Historical Work in the American West at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. She lives in Weybridge.

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