David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Category: Latin American History

AmWest #1: View from the East vs. View from the South

For the few people following along at home: I’m now taking a Western U.S. History class with Dr. Paula Petrik. This is the first in a series of weekly posts about our readings.

Our first reading assignment is, perhaps, not surprising for such a course:

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Originally published in 1987 (the version I’m using includes a 2006 preface), this work has deservingly been one of the most influential on the subsequent development of Western history. Although I think I had heard of it before, it really popped to my attention originally in a fall 2009 forum on the book’s legacy in the public history field (JSTOR link).

I’ll leave commenting on that forum–including personal experience working at a contested site of Western history–for a later week, when we specifically discuss historical memory in the West. Instead, this week I’m turning my focus to Chapter 7 of The Legacy of Conquest: “America the Borderland,” discussing the role of people of Hispanic origin (perhaps the best term for a disparate grouping) in the history of the trans-Mississippi West.

Having studied borderlands history, a separate but related field, I especially found this chapter fascinating. I was particularly happy that Limerick, as in the rest of her work, showed the continuity of the past of the trans-Mississippi West–not breaking it arbitrarily at either the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 or the “closing” of the frontier in 1890, a la Frederick Jackson Turner.

However, I couldn’t help but to think that this chapter, even in discussing pre-1848 events, took a “view from the East” (to use the title of Dr. Petrik’s NEH summer seminar), rather than a “view from the South.” As did David Weber in his seminal The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992), Limerick focused on events north of the Guadalupe Hidalgo and Gadsden treaty lines. She did attribute causality for these events to south of that line, showing that this region represented the northern expansion of New Spain and, briefly, Mexico’s “Far North,” as did Stanley Green in his The Mexican Republic: The First Decade (1987). But in reading that portion of the chapter, it still felt as if events in that region were isolated from those in the rest of New Spain.

Georgetown historian John Tutino‘s two recent books, Making a New World (2011) and Mexico and Mexicans in the Making of the United States (2012), meanwhile, brought, to me, more satisfying explanation for Spanish expansion. I recently read the latter, so this was fresh on my mind as I read Chapter 7. (Here’s an excellent podcast interview that summarizes the arguments of these complicated works.)

In Limerick’s synthesis–likely reflecting the approach of the time–imperial rivalries drive Spanish expansion into New Mexico, Texas, and later California during the course of the 16th through 18th centuries. Tutino, meanwhile, while not discounting the motive of imperial rivalry, linked these regions into the economic and social system he called “Spanish North America.”

He defined this system as beginning in the central Mexican region of the Bajío, northwest of Mexico City, and extending its tentacles northward. This was, he argued, a capitalist region, defined by mostly free labor, working for wages, and owners of large mines and haciendas accumulating and investing capital. This wealth accumulation was based on the silver mines of the Bajío, which provided the capital for the Spanish Empire’s imports from China, and the haciendas and ranches that fed those mines.

This stood in stark contrast with “Spanish Mesoamerica,” a land where Spaniards found already densely-settled native populations and essentially placed themselves at the head of these social formations. In Spanish North America, Native populations were typically nomadic, and many (like the Comanches that we’ll discuss in later weeks) maintained their independence throughout this period. Those that integrated into the Spanish system did so in ways that vastly changed their identities in new mission and ranching communities.

In this formulation, Spanish colonists pushed into New Mexico, Texas, and California not merely to fend off potential imperial rivals (although that was a motive), but to extend this economic system further. The integration of these regions into the wider economic system of Spanish North America is missing in Limerick’s chapter, and in much other writing on this region’s time under Spanish rule.

This is a small quibble here (one I hesitate to call a quibble, since it’s based on work two decades later), and indeed, Legacy of Conquest is one of the most cited works in Mexico and Mexicans. Thus, that work built upon Legacy of Conquest to provide a more full explanation. I wanted to bring attention to this point because it more fully supports Limerick’s analysis of the unbroken past in the trans-Mississippi West: Tutino and his co-authors in Mexico and Mexicans argued that this system of mining, farming, and grazing continued well after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and in many places continues to this day.

This explanation thus also provides a more significant cause for Spanish northward expansion than imperial rivalry, and shows one of the dangers of depicting the history of this region in relative isolation. As Limerick stated, the present-day Southwestern United States forms one ecological region with the Mexican North. As Tutino and his coauthors showed, it formed a unified economic region, as well.


This week I commented on Allyson’s, Carol’s, and Diane’s  blogs.

And now, it is done…

At least for now. At least for the sake of Dr. Petrik’s gradebook. You can see my final assignment, “Santa Anna Goes to Washington.”

There is still more that I would like to do. In spite of Geoff and Sheri’s helpful advice, I never got around to learning how to make an image map. So, my map is not clickable, as was my original plan. I simply ran out of time with the content. Nonetheless, it is here for all to see.

Overall, I’m happy that I worked with Omeka, as it will help me to build upon this site in the future. Part of me wished that I had worked with regular HTML and CSS for the sake of the class assignment, as I would have needed to do less tinkering, but in the end, I was happy with the flexibility to add more pages and objects. As I continue on my overall project, I will continue to add objects and information. I’m also excited to learn more about using PHP in Clio 3 this fall.

But for now, I am going to sleep.

To all of my classmates and Dr. Petrik, thank you for a great semester. I have learned a lot, and have particularly enjoyed getting to know a dynamic, intelligent, and nice bunch of fellow historians and art historians. Thanks to everyone for your help this semester. I will look forward to continuing to learn from, and with, all of you.

Preliminary final project

My preliminary final project is live: http://davidmckenzie.info/projects/exhibits/show/santa-anna-goes-to-washington

I feel like it’s coming along. It’s coming along a bit more slowly than I had hoped, but it is coming along. Thus far I’ve found working with Omeka both challenging and rewarding. Rewarding, because it’s taken a learning curve to crack, and because it will give me more flexibility to include more items, particularly as the design solidifies. Challenging, for those same reasons. I have gone back to my CSS repeatedly, as I’ve added more items and realized, oh wait, that didn’t work so well. Not long ago, I expanded my main content container to give everything more breathing room.

A couple continuing issues:

  • The secondary navigation, i.e., the left menu bar. Overall I’m happy with how it’s turned out, except that some page titles get cut off. I’m not sure if it’s an issue with my padding and margins; anyone have thoughts?
  • I may need to go into Omeka’s exhibit page layouts and make some alterations. I haven’t been happy with how some of the layouts are turning out, such as this one. It’s meant to have two columns worth of items on the right side. Right now, it’s only displaying one, but some room for a second. I may need to make it so that it just wants to display one, as I feel the main text is too narrow.

Because of my continuing tinkering with the design (which has been really helped by blog comments from Claire and Lindsey, Twitter comments from program classmates Lynn and Erin, and in-person comments from my wife), I haven’t put in as much of the content as I’d like. There is more to come–but I hope where I am now gives a taste of what will be there.

I will look forward to receiving feedback from my classmates tomorrow night (or tonight, now that I’m writing past midnight). Anyone else that cares to comment, please feel free!

What a difference a detail can make…

Right now I’m sitting by a microfilm machine at George Mason University’s Arlington campus library, looking at a microfilm–retrieved via interlibrary loan–of the journal of Calista Cralle Long. Long’s grandson published it in 1940, but it is hard to find–indeed, no Washington-area libraries, not even the Library of Congress, have it.

Long travelled with her husband and family from near Lynchburg, Virginia, to Union County, Kentucky, in late 1836 and early 1837. My reason for looking at her diary: On December 29, 1836, the party passed through Lexington, Kentucky. They stayed in the same place as Antonio López de Santa Anna, Juan Almonte, and three Texas Republic officials, who were traveling from toward Washington. Long described what happened:

We are now in Lexington, Kentucky, one of the handsomest places I was ever in. The surrounding country is highly cultivated and very neatly managed, the woodland enclosed and all the undergrowth cut down. This enclosure serves for stock. The grass, I am told, is nearly eighteen inches high on average.

Mr. Henry Clay has a most beautiful residence near town. We reached here about dark. The candles were burning on either side of the street and the reflection gave everything an added beauty.

There is a little confusion in town tonight on account of the heartless cruel Santa Anna’s arrival here. There is some little talk of a mob tonight. He has two gentlemen with him, his aide-de-camp and Major Somebody, I have forgotten his name. We are all lodged under the same roof. We took tea with the latter gentlemen at the same table.

The Mexican is a very genteel looking man, of low stature, dark hair and eyes, and rather sallow complexion. They are on their way to Washington, as they say, to see the President of the United States, (Jackson). I did not learn their business, neither did I see the General as he was ill and did not leave his room.

Santa Anna kept his room closely and very much wrapped and muffled up to prevent the effect of the keen air. His aide says he longs very much for his lost Paradise, Mexico.

Image of Juan Nepomuceno Almonte

Likely Long took tea with Juan Almonte, a Mexican army colonel who served as Santa Anna's translator during the journey to Washington.

I found this diary through serendipity when searching on ArchiveGrid for references to Santa Anna a while back. In the libraries that hold the published version of this diary, most catalog entries for this diary (at least not the ones I have seen) do not mention Santa Anna.

However, the catalog, uploaded to ArchiveGrid, from Madisonville Community College in Kentucky does. I haven’t seen this diary cited anywhere in accounts of Santa Anna’s voyage to Washington, and might not have known of its relevance otherwise. This diary entry will be a great source for my upcoming class project site about Santa Anna’s trip to Washington, and will eventually roll into my dissertation.

So to whoever that cataloger was, I say, thank you for adding that little detail! You never know what may help a future researcher.

Playing with Photoshop

For this week, we are moving from setting up pages on the Web to the nitty-gritty of Photoshop. As I read through the book, the articles and watched the video, I started playing with my own images. All of the books for class thus far have been helpful, but Non-Designers Photoshop Book has been the most so thus far. Its short lessons allowed me to really get immersed.

There used to be a power cord, rather visible, in the lower right corner. Now there's not. Happy, dear?

For this lesson I particularly liked using my own images (especially since I have not yet upgraded my Lynda.com membership to get the exercise files, although I’m considering following Claire’s and Geoff’s advice to do so). Some of the exercises produced rather funny results. I removed wrinkles from a sketch of Antonio López de Santa Anna drawn around the time of the U.S.-Mexican War, when he was in his 50s. I made my more recent self look like I did when I lost 30 pounds (long since regained, plus more) during my Peace Corps stint in El Salvador. Since my wife justifiably dislikes visible power cords, I removed one from a photo of our Christmas tree.

While all of these were fun, Photoshop of course has serious uses, even for us as historians. To practice colorizing, I used a sketch of Washington created in 1839. Indeed, I plan to use it for the colorization component of our image assignment in a few weeks. For my final project, this image will help the user visualize Washington when Santa Anna and Juan Almonte visited in 1837. The now sepia-toned sketch would do the trick just fine. But the color will add, well, a layer of color to that. Perhaps I could even juxtapose that image with contemporary images of, for example, Mexico City and Vera Cruz (Santa Anna’s base of operations, near his hacienda), and also cities and landscapes they passed in the United States. This would show the different visual worlds these men experienced. The ability to do this is, indeed, one of the powers of digital history–to help people connect with the past by seeing it. Colorizing the image will help with that visualization, that connection.

Beginning to add color to Washington. Emphasis on the term "beginning." Still a long way to go!

Sheri raises important ethical questions about manipulating images in our work–ones that behoove historians to consider. To what degree is it ethical to manipulate an image? How far can or should we go to being like Stalin, who purged his enemies from historical photos as he purged them from the earth?

I suppose my answer for that question would be, it depends (the ultimate historian’s cop-out). In large measure, my answers are colored by working on museum exhibitions, where we manipulate images in different ways all the time, and face similar issues. In an exhibition, an image can serve two purposes. It can be part of the design, or an artifact.

Exhibition developers and designers do a lot to images that are design elements. In fact, my first introduction to Photoshop came in an exhibition design class, where we cut Gene Autry out of a larger image, made him blue, and put him into an exhibition panel. This image, however, was a part of the design–just as one would be for the masthead of a website. So on the revised masthead of my type assignment (still a work in progress after last week’s discussion–you will notice, though, fewer ornaments!), for example, I include a cut-out image of Santa Anna and the aforementioned 1839 sketch of Washington. These images are decorations, so I had few qualms about manipulating them. Indeed, they need more manipulation, which they will receive as my Photoshop skills increase.

Santa Anna, with botox. Of course, I would not use this image as an "artifact" on my final site.

However, as artifacts, exhibition developers and designers and have to tread a much more careful line, along the lines of what Sheri insightfully raises. When we have an image, say, with a caption, we should present it as close to the original as possible. That’s not to say that things aren’t touched up; for example, one may remove the broken glass line from the famous last photo of Lincoln (although Sheri raises great points as to why this possibly should not be done), but would not, say, make him into a vampire or even a vampire-hunter (leave that for novelists and now filmmakers).

The same applies to the web. On my type page, I won’t replace the image of Santa Anna in the main text with the botox-ed version (as much as the image-conscious general would probably thank me). I may, however, enhance the image; that would reveal even more of its fine detail. This, to me, is akin to a museum placing different lighting on an artifact, or putting a zoomable 3-D image of it on a screen next to the artifact, allowing the user to experience it in a way he or she couldn’t otherwise (as the Library of Congress did in its Americas exhibition).

Just the same, when I present my colorized image of Washington, I will include a caption saying that I’ve colorized it, letting my user know that it’s a modified version of the original historical artifact (itself with a vein of fantasy about it, as many early images of Washington are).

Thus, I am quite excited to be learning all that Photoshop can do. It has the power not only to make images look better, but work better for researching and conveying history.

Addendum: This week I commented on Sheri’s and Claire’s blogs.

Addendum 2: If you haven’t watched through to the end of the lynda.com video, I strongly recommend you do so. The part about smart objects may save you hours in the end. So glad to know that part now… The other day, when I was updating my type page, I kept going back and forth between Photoshop and Dreamweaver whenever I wanted to make a change to the still-in-progress header image…


Fun with fonts and styles

As I’ve read the book and watched the video for this week’s assignment (scroll to February 13), I’ve been dividing my attention: I’ve succumbed to the temptation of continually modifying my portfolio site, based on the inspiration and new skills that the video and book have afforded me.

This shows one of the many ways that doing history on the web is different, and raises a question for students in digital history classes. For last week’s assignment I sent Dr. Petrik a link to my portfolio homepage. If this were a paper, I may have done as I have in other classes: when I came up with another idea, thinking, “I should have done that! Too bad it’s too late,” during the following week. But unlike with a paper, I’m actually doing something: modifying the CSS for the overall site–at this point, I’m using the same CSS for the start page and for each of the assignment pages. But I’m not sure if I should be doing that, or if I should just leave it as-was. For example, last semester, after our proof-of-concept assignment was due, I had ideas for things to add to it. But I held off until I was sure that Dr. Leon had graded it (granted, I wound up simply holding off, period. Eventually I’ll get back to it!).

So I suppose I’ll be asking Dr. Petrik a question on Monday (unless she is reading this before class and wants to comment :)): Should I leave the portfolio homepage as-was (i.e., separate the CSS for that page from that of the rest of the site), or is it okay to keep modifying the style as I modify the rest of my portfolio site?

Through this exercise, I’m learning just how great CSS is. I can modify the one file, and it’s reflected on all of the different pages of my site. Nice.

Meanwhile, as I moved through the font video, I also began to switch around the fonts in my CSS and think about the type assignment for next week. In searching for an appropriate font, I came upon one called “Texas Hero.” Curious, I checked out the backstory: the font designer’s mother was a volunteer at the University of Texas Center for American History (where I once conducted some research for what will likely be my final class project and eventually part of my dissertation). He designed fonts based on letters in CAH’s collections. As it turns out, he based the Texas Hero font on the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson Rusk–recipient of a letter I included in my final project last semester.

So, I had to have this font (yes, such things are the objects of this history nerd’s coveting). I downloaded it. Then I got to the part in the video about how not all fonts are licensed for web use. So I read the end-user license agreement. Just to be sure, I emailed the creator. He kindly emailed me right back (on a late Saturday afternoon, at that!) and clarified the agreement, which indeed does not allow me to use the font in the text of the site. This makes sense; if I uploaded the font to my server to use with the @font-face command, someone could easily download the font and not pay him for his hard work.

Therefore, although I may pay the extra fee for web use in the future, for now I will just use the font in my header graphic (which the creator said was fine, as the font is not actually uploaded to the server). Indeed, in the end the header will probably look much better than it does with the convoluted way I centered my name on top of the map. Don’t ask me how I did that, as I’m not sure I could tell you!

I should add, the site where I bought Texas Hero has some other great fonts for historians. Check it out.

Tucson: Overreaction as protest?

The last few days, my Twitter stream has lit up with justified outrage about the banning of ethnic studies–and related books–in Arizona’s classrooms. What has especially made news is the Tucson Unified School District’s seizure of the banned books.

Opponents of ethnic studies in Arizona’s schools claim that such curricula “divide [students] by race and teach its group about its own background only,” as the state’s former Superintendent of Public Instruction put it. Yes, teaching ethnic history does have the chance of instilling chauvinism and triumphalism. But so does teaching national history. So does teaching “great white men” history. So does teaching religious history. So does teaching, really, any kind of history.

But ethnic history, and any kind of history of a group or individual, also allows one to see the bigger story through the lens of that particular group or individual. It brings to light past–and present–injustices and triumphs. It instills a sense of history in many students–helping students of that ethnicity understand from whence they came, and helping students of other ethnicities understand from whence their peers came.

Since Tucson originated the Mexican-American studies program that led to the state’s ban, I couldn’t help but wonder–is Tucson’s overreaction a form of protest by the district against the state? Rather than inconspicuously removing books during off-hours, the district removed them in plain sight of students–interestingly, around the time of a holiday celebrating a slain civil rights leader, a holiday that Arizona refused to celebrate for many years.

This is pure speculation on my part. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking. Perhaps, as this Public Radio International story says, the district is mainly worried about losing funding from the state if it doesn’t comply with the vaguely-worded ban. But it does seem something here is up, more than meets the eye. If the district is indeed trying to make a stand by demonstrating to all the fallacy of the state’s law, good for it. If that’s not the case, well, at least the district’s actions have called attention to this significant issue. Hopefully some good will come out of this.

Data Mining & Distant Reading: Valuable Tools, but Merely Tools

This week’s readings (scroll to Week 10) concerned using digital technology to “read” texts in different ways.

I use the term “read” in quotation marks to draw attention to it, as this is not what many of us colloquially call reading–that is, what you are doing now, going over my post with your eyes. That term nonetheless applies–it describes what, for example, Google is doing with this post, going through it with algorithms to fish certain information out of it.

For me, the readings harkened back to those from week 3, particularly Susan Hockey’s “History of Humanities Computing.” In my post for that week, I mentioned my surprise, based on my own experience, how long of a history humanities computing had. Through most of that history, computers had been used for production of knowledge rather than its dissemination, beginning with Father Busa’s use of punchcards to index the works of Thomas Aquinas. This week’s readings focused on new, and not-so-new, ways of using digital technology in humanities research, particularly with texts.

Digital technology has assisted with knowledge production in the humanities by assisting us with the problem of quantity. Besides the basic function of searching through mountains of material to pull out what we need, the technology enables us to find patterns and quantities in the material itself.

As the readings all make clear, however, these tools are merely tools–means to an end, not ends in themselves. Nor should they be ends in themselves. To show that, I’ll use an example from my own work here.

For my American Revolution seminar at GW in 2006, I wrote a paper comparing ideology in the American Revolution and the contemporaneous Tupac Amaru Rebellion in Peru. Referencing other works’ historiography, I stated that interest in the Tupac Amaru Rebellion had picked up in the 1960s and 1970s. I revised that paper for my Ph.D. program writing sample in late 2010–just after the debut of Google’s N-grams Viewer.

So just for fun, I used the N-gram Viewer to find instances of the term “Tupac Amaru” in the English and Spanish corpuses since 1780. The results largely bore out what the historiography said: at least in English, a rise in mentions of that combination of terms in the 1960s and 1970s. Interestingly, though, the Spanish corpus shows a rise–indeed, a peak–in the 1950s.

As Dan Cohen correctly points out, using this tool is merely a start. Indeed, it leads to a host of other questions. For example, why do the English and Spanish corpuses have their peaks at different times? As Franco Moretti does with 18th- and 19th-century English novels, we need to look at the social contexts of those times to understand those peaks. In the case of Tupac Amaru, the rise of the term, in the English corpus at least, coincides–not coincidentally–with the rise of anticolonial movements and subaltern history. That’s what the historiographies in recent works said, at least. Why an earlier rise of the term’s frequency in the Spanish corpus? That is a question for further research.

To tease out other issues, we need to look more closely at the works cited. For example, the English corpus shows a rise of that combination of terms in the 1990s–not surprisingly, corresponding with the rise in popularity of the rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur, and, I’m guessing to a lesser extent, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement’s 1997 seizure of the Japanese embassy in Lima. Only by reading deeper–i.e., reading in the traditional, commonly-understood sense of the term–would one be able to learn whether that 1990s rise had to do with increased scholarship about the 1780-83 rebellion or the prominence of an individual and a group named for that rebellion’s leader.

Thus, my takeaway from this week’s readings: similar caveats as those that apply to the N-gram Viewer apply to other data mining and distant reading tools. The tools help us formulate questions, help us answer those and other questions, help us make sense of a mass of information. And they are super-cool. But they do not provide answers in themselves. For that, we still need to rely on the oldest tool in the humanities arsenal: the human brain.