Golis: Honoring our Latino history

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.

"Santa Rosa: A Nineteenth Century Town," a history by Gaye LeBaron, Dee Blackman, Joann Mitchell and the late Harvey Hansen, tells us that the population of Sonoma County increased from 560 people in 1850 to 11,867 people a decade later.

The past is past. A Mexican land-grant system designed to promote settlement in a far-flung frontier lost its utility a long time before the state reached 38 million people. We live in a country that needs to manage its borders, conduct most of its business in English and protect the rights of citizens and taxpayers.

Still, the new PBS series remind us that there are lessons to be learned from history.

In this nation of immigrants, we could hope that a touch of humility and a recognition of our shared past might enhance our capacity to resolve issues of income, ethnicity and immigration status.

More than ever, we have reasons to try to bridge these divisions — reasons that have nothing to do with history and everything to do with our wish to prosper in the future.

Sometime this year, state demographers predict, the number of Latino Californians will equal the number of white Californians — each at about 39 percent.

In Sonoma County, about one in four residents today is Latino, and the number is growing. About a third of the public school students are Latino — and more than half of elementary school kids in Santa Rosa are Latino. And, every day, more employers rely on Latino workers to sustain their businesses.

You know the issues. Congress continues to dither over immigration reforms designed to create a path to citizenship for some while deporting others and increasing border security.

At the 11th hour, the state Legislature last week passed legislation to allow more than one million illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, and Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign it.

State government continues to seek strategies to turn around student performance in low-income school districts, and the Santa Rosa Board of Education last week debated what can be done to improve performance among English learners who graduate from high school at a lower rate than other students.

None of these issues is easy because most of them stir strong emotions. When attention is paid to students who don't speak English, some make the assumption that they are undocumented and therefore undeserving of public support.

And so here we are, a country of people mutually dissatisfied with the status quo but unable to reconcile their differences.

If acknowledging their shared history helped people become more respectful of one another, that would be a good outcome.

We might also recognize that, however we got here, we're all here together now — and that's not going to change.

Note: The next two episodes of "Latino Americans" will air at 8 p.m. Tuesday on KQED, Channel 9. The episodes from last week will be rebroadcast at 1 p.m. today on Channel 9.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>