When Louisiana became the 18th state of the Union in 1812, the territory was already seeped in the linguistic, historical, and cultural antecedents that had made New Orleans, its most important city at the time, one of the first multilingual, multiracial, and multiethnic cosmopolitan centers in the United States. The origins of Spanish-speaking Latino Louisiana can be traced to the arrival of Alonso Alvarez de Pineda (c. 1492-1520) in 1519. Alvarez de Pineda sailed from Cuba to explore the uncharted territories between the Florida peninsula modern-day Arkansas and Louisiana and the southern Gulf of Mexico region.
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The purpose of his trip was to find a route to the Pacific Ocean and, in this sense, the trip can be said to have initiated the importance of Louisiana, and of New Orleans in particular, to the development of one of the first major commercial zones in the Americas. Though the Spanish were the first Europeans to explore Louisiana, the area was largely under the political control of the French until 1762, when it was briefly ceded to Spain. France, however, regained control of the region in 1800, with the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso, but less than 3 years later it sold the territory to the United States with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. By the time it was incorporated into the Union, Louisiana had thriving communities of Spanish speakers composed of migrants from Latin American, Spain, and the Canary Islands.
The Canary Islanders or Islehos, as they came to be known migrated to Louisiana by way of Cuba between 1778 and 1783 to prosper economically and to protect the territory from English and French invasion. Scholars have referred to Islehos by the three distinct Spanish dialects that the latter developed in their cultural-geographic enclaves throughout the state of Louisiana. They are the Islehos proper, who have preserved the Spanish language with the lexical and syntactic patterns of the late colonial Spanish period, the Bruli, and the Adaesehos. The Islehos settled in St. Barnard Parish, near New Orleans; the Bruli settled throughout Iberville Parish, south of Baton Rouge; and the Adaesehos in Natchitoches and Sabine parishes, southwest of Shreveport.1 Many of Louisiana’s cities grew out of former settlements such as these and from Spanish posts throughout the state, including the cities of New Orleans, Donaldsonville, Alexandria, Marksville, Franklin, and Vidalia. Not surprisingly, New Orleans was the most significant city in the state given its strategic position on the Mississippi river. As early as 1820 New Orleans had already become a destination for visitors from around the globe, but especially from Latin America.
The importance of New Orleans to the state as the gateway to the Americas, not to mention the major inland shipping route through the Mississippi, also made the city one of the principal centers of Spanish-language print culture, with major newspapers circulating via ships through the Gulf of Mexico and by steamboats up and down the Mississippi River. By the 1840s the Spanish-language press in New Orleans was thriving, and it had superseded the French-language press not only in Hispanic expatriate communities but in Latin American and U.S. Latino communities as well. Many newspapers such as El Independiente, Diario del Gobierno, La verdad, La Patria, and its predecessor El Hablador were distributed throughout the United States via steamboats, trains, and the telegraph, so that by mid-nineteenth century New Orleans had at least 23 different Spanish-language newspapers and journals; New York, in comparison, had only thirteen.2 Not surprisingly, the war with Mexico (1846-1848) was covered with singular interest in the Spanish-language press because many Latinos and Latin American expatriates, emigres, and travelers saw the U.S. conquest of Mexico as but a precursor to U.S. expansion into the newly emerging Latin American republics.
During the Mexican-American War Latinos participated on both sides of the conflict. For example, the army nominated Eusebio Juan Gomez, editor of the eminent La Patria newspaper, as General Winfield Scott’s field interpreter. Gomez was quickly commissioned as lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, until the Louisiana-born Gomez’s position was rescinded because of allegations that he had leaked secret plans to the Mexicans. Manifest Destiny politics in the United States created the need to further justify the war with Mexico in an attempt to achieve geographic and political hegemony and to secure trade routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific seaboards. Native-born Louisiana Latinos such as Gomez were often assumed to be sympathetic to Mexico’s plight and less American for their cultural, religious, and linguistic ties to Mexico even if they were born in the United States.
Speakers of Spanish of various nationalities and political sympathies in Louisiana, as well as native-born Latinos, were often indistinguishable from each other in the English-speaking press and assumed to be Mexican, or at least sympathetic to Mexico during the war. Justifying the violence related to westward conquest itself most often understood as westward settlement required the denigration of conquered populations as uncivilized mongrels. Given the racial diversity of Latinos and the need to justify the war against Mexico, many Latinos began to be classed along with blacks as the former’s political and cultural influence diminished; still other Latino groups sought to assimilate by identifying positively with their European ancestry as Spaniards.4 However, determining race through ocular evidence was not always possible for such an ethnically diverse group as Latinos.
Unlike the various Isleho communities who since their arrival in the late eighteenth century had always considered themselves European, most Latinos could not pass as European or as Anglo-Americans even if they wanted to do so. It was during this generative period that the importance of France to the region was exalted, and the notion of a French Louisiana grew in measure with the paradoxical representation of Latinos as foreign to the state. Indeed, even Islehos whose physical and cultural presence predated the arrival and settlement of Anglo-Americans began to emphasize their heritage as pure Spaniards in contradistinction to mixed-race Latinos in the region, who were increasingly classed as colored, foreign, or both.
Yet, many Louisiana Latinos saw themselves as part of the very fiber of the state and country. The Civil War (1861-1865) is a case in point. At the onset of the war in 1861 Louisiana seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. Estimates of Latino participation in the Civil War range as high as 9,500 nationally. In Louisiana, Latinos fought for the Confederacy in the Chalmette Regiment Infantry of Louisiana, as well as in the Zouaves First Florida Calvary of Louisiana.5 Louisiana’s European Brigade alone had upwards of 800 Spanish soldiers, though it is not clear how many were actually Spanish nationals, given the pressure to assimilate and the collapsing of national distinctions for most speakers of Spanish in the public sphere. Other units such as Louisiana’s William E. Stake Brigade included Cubans, Mexicans, Central Americans, as well as other Latin American nationals who suffered discrimination. For example, while in Maryland, the foreign-looking members of the Stake Brigade were signaled out and accused of looting and violence.