On Auditory Imperialism

Los Leones, Colorado, was the site of a longstanding Mexican settlement in the upper Rio Grande Valley, until it disappeared from the map in the 1870s. The town itself remained, physically at least, but when this area became part of of the US in the 1848 Mexican Cession, Anglo settlers moved into the region. After the discovery of gold near Pike’s Peak in 1858, immigration increased exponentially. In Los Leones, Fred Walsen opened a shop on the central plaza, made a lot of money, bought more real estate, started an Elks Lodge, built a Victorian-style house, and had the town renamed Walsenburg. So Los Leones and what it was became Walsenburg–and everything Walsenburg was instead.

Los Leones, Colorado
Los Leones, Colorado

Throughout what we now call the American West, this process played out with numbing regularity from the 1840s through at least of the turn of the century. The new normal after the US-Mexican War of 1846-1848 was Anglo expropriation of land and resources by hook or by crook, accompanied in areas from California to Utah to Texas by extermination of Hispanic and Native peoples. Thousands of Los Leoneses became thousands of Walsenburgs.* And the precise ways in which this coerced transfer of wealth occurred are of real significance. Brazen, illegal squatting maintained through violence was enough for newcomers to gain a toehold on a Tejano’s or Californio’s land.** But to acquire that land, the newcomers turned to the tools of the United States legal system, which achieved hegemonic sway in the West as quickly as Anglo newcomers (an increasing number of whom were opportunistic lawyers) could file claim paperwork and/or a lawsuit. This new, impersonal, imperial legal framework became an all-encompassing presence on the physical and cultural landscape by replacing the old legal framework–Spanish and Mexican claims were disregarded, ignored, or deemed insufficient to meet the requirements of the “superior” new legal system. And Los Leoneses became Walsenburgs. Even the sites that retained Spanish place names (Los Angeles, Buena Vista, Santa Barbara) now had those names pronounced differently (still do!)–and that was important. Yankee speech became auditory imperialism, reshaping the contours of the discourse that everyone participated in, whether they liked it or not.

This idea of auditory imperialism opens up some important ways for us to look at not only the processes of conquest and expropriation that occurred in the 19th-century North American West, but even more significantly at the ways in which we as historians analyze, interpret, and present these events. I’m not saying anything new when I argue that language is an arena where we assert and contest power, but I am saying that I think we often overlook this reality, or make token reference to it and then go our merry way as if nothing occurred. Why is it, for example, that with very few exceptions, historians don’t call what happened in post-1848 California “genocide?” That word is the province of the PC crowd, the multiculturalists, the Lefties, right? It’s inflammatory. It’s passionate. And we all know that good scholarship isn’t either one of those, right? Scholarship is Objective, This I Know. For von Ranke tells me so.

The avoidance of that term is itself an assertion of power, as that avoidance implicitly asserts a specific characterization of events that elides some of the most important parts of the historical record. There is ample testimony–firsthand and demographic–of the systematic extermination of the Californio and Native populations carried out by Anglos, whether they were gold-rushing newcomers or longer-term residents of California. Anglos, one of them tells us, agonized as much about killing a Mexican as they did lice. And by 1860, the fruits of that mindset were apparent when we look at the population numbers. This, it seems clear, was at least an attempt at genocide–the systematic and concerted effort to eliminate a people based upon perceived racial or cultural “other-ness.” It’s not, I should add, “ethnic cleansing,” which is a weasel-word phrase which blunts the sharp edges of lived experience. “Cleansing” is what detergent does, not what armed vigilantes, invading armies, or posses comitatus do.

So what’s the point here? Does a particular term really matter in the long run, when there’s a general scholarly consensus about what actually happened in gold-rush era California? Among the many reasons that it does for me is because of its pedagogical importance. Auditory imperialism, I believe, decisively shapes what we hear (and I define “hear” broadly; it can mean what we “hear” the author of a text or document “say”). If my students hear me describe these events as “land expropriation,” they hear a clinical-sounding diagnosis of an impersonal process, one which conjures up images of courtrooms and filing cabinets, not people. If they hear me describe these events as a “process of genocide,” well…that is a term that must be reckoned with. It does not mute, elide, or downplay the lived experience–which we have clearly-established in the documentary record–of the people on the wrong end of the power dynamic.

How we as historians present our interpretations of the past shapes that very past itself, at least so far as it as “heard” by our audiences–and that is the recoverable past for us here in the present. It’s all we’ve got. And over that recoverable past, the shadow of auditory imperialism hangs like a shroud. Auditory imperialism talks of “expansion” and “progress.” It laments “disruptions to native culture” and “Native removal” but also erases the linguistic evidence of their presence, just as old Mexican land titles got “lost” after the war. It ignores “losers” and lifts up “victors.” It shouts celebratory tales extolling the “independence” of “pioneers” who were dependent upon, and triumphant because of, massive state power. It inscribes European place names on maps of Native lands. It tells us about wars of “independence” instead of “conquest.” It infects even well-meaning attempts at cultural balance by describing “ethnic cleansing,” and “theft,” and other verbs that have no subjects performing them.

But there’s something underneath that din and clangor of auditory imperialism, which has grown so loud and omnipresent that we don’t even consciously realize we’re listening. It’s the counternarrative, the voiceless’s voice, the whisper trying in a very real way to speak truth to power. That is the voice I want my students to hear. That is the voice that should be the province of historians in general, not just historians of color or leftist scholars or contrarians. We owe it to ourselves and our “listeners” to avoid language that mutes some voices, that renders the visceral abstract, that turns ‘experience’ into ‘process.’ We should eschew representations of the past that don’t let our listeners know about the layers of experiences underneath. In short, when we engage in discourse–whichever form that discourse might take–we need to be anti-imperialists. Don’t let Walsenburg be the only voice to tell the story of Los Leones.

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But wait! More on Auditory Imperialism here.

*The fate of Los Leones is described in Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s excellent book Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States (W.W. Norton, 2014).

**Damn immigrants. I blame their culture.

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