The U.S.-Mexican War and
    the Peoples of the Year 2000

The Future of New/Old Nations


Inputs from Politics  

Inputs from History  

The Future of New/Old Nations  

The great nation-states work automatically to "contain" any fires in which popular communities reaffirm themselves as ethnic groups, much less as nationalities. After all, the nation-states are the only units to which people are supposed to swear loyalty. 

This is one reason why histories of the U.S.-Mexican War hang as a weight on the present.  They say that the conflict between the two nation-states was what mattered.  Other communities are not allowed to matter. 

The people-nations, though, have deep roots in the past, independent of the two nation-states.  They are also creating their own links into a transnational world that is the future of all peoples.  The popular communities, therefore, have all the elements of becoming "New/Old Nations."  They do not have to believe what the nation-states tell them. 

The nation-states then have the option, if they are bright, of believing what the people-nations are saying about the nature of the world. 

Sadly, the nation-states of North America, including both the United States and Mexico, will probably try to be smart rather than intelligent.  They will try to look as if they take the people-nations seriously, even if they do not. 

Errors are still at work, much the same as the mind-sets that afflicted political thought in Mexico and the United States in the 1840s. 

  • One is to think that the nation-state are the only large community that deserves loyalty -- that there is no other legitimate identity. 
  • A second is to think that the only proper people to transcend nation-state sovereignty are the officers of some organized culture -- whether the commissioned officers in a military culture, or the executive officers of transnational corporations. 
Many good citizens in the United States recoil from the notion that anybody could threaten to carry out Lafragua's "silly" prophecy, by detaching the Southwest from the United States, or even giving it back to Mexico.  Some good Mexicans (PRI-istas, anyway) will say that any project of autonomy for the people-nations is a threat to "balkanize" America, splitting it into little bands of ethnocidal maniacs.  Only large centralized governments, they will say, can make the peace-process run on time. 

But José María Lafragua was himself a conventional 19th-century nationalist, thinking that moral destinies had to be encased in geographical territories with mechanical boundaries. He was one of many people, on both sides of the Río Grande, who thought that any nomadic people was automatically "savage."  If asked about the possibility of a "nonlocal" nation, he would probably have dismissed the idea as a transcendental folly. 

The larger issues of the U.S.-Mexican War continue active.  The nation-state confederations of the continent continue to compete for influence over the people-nations.  To Chicanos and to northward migrants, the United States offers survival; Mexico offers memory and culture. The Zedillo government strives to retain influence over the "hearts and minds" of all the people-nations gathered under the Mexican nation-state.  Its thinking, like Lafragua's, is brittle and defensive.

The fluidity that marked the historical past in North America, and the lack of stable identity among the people who managed so great a crisis as the U.S.-Mexican War, mean that the national identities tracing back to that crisis are still rather artificial constructions.  Policy is "up for grabs" in any spheres where national identities are emerging:

A Definition in the Works:  NEW/OLD NATION

There is no list of "authentic" new/old nations, to be picked off the shelf of history, polished up, and turned into figures on the current scene.  Some ethnic groups may choose not to see themselves as territorial nations, except for purposes of memory and pride.  Some actual territorial nations, such as Puerto Rico, may hesitate to get out from under the sheltering benefits of a dominant nation-state.  What particular peoples want to become is for them to decide. Their decisions -- what the academics call "ethnogenesis" -- could crystallize at the level of family, or clan, or "patria chica" (local country), or at that of language group, or even political movement. Because the process is so open, it picks up easily and unself-consciously on much that is just beginning to happen in our world.  Even when groups as old as Maya or Naga'a insist on ancient identity and rights, they are doing it with the methods available now.  They are, literally, "New/Old Nations."

Each of the four main divisions of North America is now a political confederation:

  • Canada
  • the United States
  • Mexico
  • Central America (which still exists as a shattered confederation -- the American Yugoslavia).
  • Within each, and across the boundaries between them, come the sounds of a different kind of nationality, unlike anything official.  It is a spiritual secessionism, far more than a territorial.  Against it, the existing states have one serious counter-claim: that it is their job to prevent balkanization.  Danger, though, comes not from any such fragmentation.  It threatens from any violence used to repress the new/old nations.
    A new/old nation is a band of people who act within our nonlocal world.  They may see themselves as rooted in some little bounded world, but even that prior world was one where individual and family identity did not stop at property lines.  Just to venture a kind of definition:
  • The new/old nation lives on a sense that its members issued into the nonlocal world through some shared channel.  This channel may be a territory or neighborhood, whether the valley claimed by an indigenous community, or the neighborhood claimed by a San Salvador street gang.  It may be mythic, like a sacred cave out of which ancestors emerged into the world. It may be a shared experience of natural disaster.  It may be a prison experience. It may be a recent struggle against some nation-state
  • Whatever the "ancient" origin, the new/old nation has access to all the ways of nonlocality, and is not limited by any nation-state.  While it has roots, it is a "rooted nonlocality."
  • Its shared resources, perhaps with mythic roots in some village chest, have the potential for becoming more like the strike fund or welfare fund of a labor union -- that is, a reliance in negotiation with outsiders, and in negotiation between present and future.
  • It is repository and generator of its own language standards, protecting both the historic tongue and whatever evolves in the present.
  • It exists by constant negotiation (not necessarily pacific) among its own members, and is the natural agent for negotiation with others.


    Possibilities and the Future

    Just as with territorial villages or the nation-state, there is no guarantee that the new/old nation will be either democratic in its internal life, or gentle in its treatment of outsiders.  The analogy from 19th-century nomads to 20th-century street gangs is non-trivial. None of this contradicts the simple fact of what is happening around us. Against what the nation-state once demanded, a current has set, toward what many people would consider "outlaw" communities.  As the new/old nations develop standards of their own, there are three possibilities for what may happen: Among these possible directions, the choice that is most open to new decision is that between the claims of Mexico, as a nation-state, and the claims of all the nonlocal nationalities that have roots in or near Mexico.  Mexico as a nation has long claimed to be essentially "mestizo," uniting the identities of diverse peoples.  As indigenous populations continued to grow, many individuals bled off into the general population.  The usual statistics for "indigenous" cover those who still speak indigenous languages, with the result that the indigenous component in the national identity is minimized, sanitized -- and still subordinated.  Even so, the Mexican nation-state does have the potential for acting as a champion and umbrella for a wide range of indigenous or new/old nationalities, including many not now within its borders.

    That championship would become substantial if the state conceded to the new-old nationalities a much greater degree of autonomy and creativity than they now find in its official indigenism.  For now, that regime seems still committed to a barely-disguised version of the old U.S. policies against Indians.

    But Indians were not given in legitimate encomienda to Spain, or to the PRI, or even to the Instituto Nacional Indigenista -- that is, not to the Deluded White Chieftains of any culture.  All the command-level institutions of our time -- which include the Mexican state, and the U.S. as nation, and the transnational corporations -- may continue to treat the non-state nationalities as captive clients.  (The captivity will be made a sophisticated one, of course.)  There is little prospect that anything different will gain a foothold in the United States.  Only in Mexico does a more open outlook seem to present itself as even conceivable.

    The most sophisticated form of defending the captive-client process is that employed by some experts on "ethnogenesis." They take pains to insist that the new/old nations present no danger to the nation-state.  Honorably, they want to disarm any move to a repressive policy.  And they are right if they are talking only about the great physical power of the state.  But they are not right if they are talking about hearts and minds and futures.  The new/old nations do threaten to become something more than inoffensive beggar inditos, hat in hand.  They do threaten to invade the identities built up by the nation-states.

    This is the same situation that was being negotiated through and after the U.S.-Mexican War.  The forces of nonlocality have re-emerged, gaining now at the expense of territorial thought.

    The new/old peoples will become something clearer, more active as institutions in the present-day world.  That we can be sure of.  But with what allies from the ranks of other institutions?  Or with no such allies?

    In the face of coercion,  these nonlocal, new/old nations have a way around:  they can negotiate directly with each other.

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