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Golis: Honoring our Latino history

  • School children visit Gen. Mariano Vallejo's Petaluma adobe, the headquarters of his rancho. (The Press Democrat, 2008)

A few years ago, I wrote an editorial which mentioned that the first real estate documents in Sonoma County were written in Spanish.

And I heard about it. Folks who wanted to arrest millions of undocumented immigrants and ban languages other than English eagerly shared their disapproval.

The editorial wasn't wrong, of course. The earliest settlers in Sonoma County conducted their business in Spanish, gave Spanish names to familiar landmarks and left behind an iconic mission in Sonoma. (Native Americans were already here, but that's a discussion for another day.)

For some, mention of our county's Latino heritage seemed an inconvenient fact, a piece of local history that got in the way of their belief that people of Mexican descent were outsiders.

The new PBS series, “Latino Americans,” which premiered last Tuesday, aims to serve up its own collection of inconvenient facts.

In the first episode, it retells the story of a Mexican army commander, Gen. Mariano Vallejo of Sonoma, who welcomed Americans to what was then Mexico, only to be arrested, jailed and eventually driven from his own land.

From Texas to California, 19th-century American immigrants were determined to have the land for themselves — and it wouldn't be long before they got what they wanted.

In the 1848 treaty that concluded the Mexican-American War, Mexico surrendered half its territory and the U.S. doubled in size. Soon after came the Gold Rush and California statehood.

In the PBS episode entitled “Foreigners in Their Own Land,” one historian explains: “The lands that Americans wanted to occupy — in their imaginations, they were empty. But in reality, they were not.”

And another historian: “The people who just arrived viewed the people who had been here for a long time as the outsiders.”

The Mexican land-grant system would collapse, overrun by new residents eager to assert their own claims and the U.S. government's inability — some would say, disinterest — in adjudicating land disputes.

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