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The Journal of Big Bend
Studies
Volume VI
Earl H. Elam, Editor

1
MYTH AMERICA:
VELLEITIES AND REALITIES OF THE AMERICAN ETHOS
Sixth Annual Mary Thomas Marshall Lecture, delivered March 12, 1993, Texas State University
System– Sul Ross, Alpine, Texas. Published in the Journal of Big Bend Studies, Volume 6, January
1994.

By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence in Social and Behavioral Studies, Sul Ross State University, Texas State University System

M any of the ideas in this presentation
have found voice in previous works of
mine, but this is the first time I have
gathered the discrete strands of this theme and
shaped them as “velleities and realities of the
about his social convictions.
I was a child of the Roaring Twenties and
came of age during the Great Depression. I
remember the legless and armless veterans of
World War I selling poppies on the corners of San
American ethos.” By “ethos” we mean the sum Jacinto Plaza in San Antonio. As Americans, we
total of a people, that which unites them uniquely all believed the “war to end all wars” had been a
in nationhood. Over the years the images of just war; and that as Americans we were all
America as “myth” or “invention” have insinuated suffering together the ravages of the Depression.
themselves into my consciousness and work. We believed that good times were, indeed, just
These are not images of condemnation but of around the corner, and that every cloud had a
observation. At first, my images of America were silver lining. We weren’t sure about a chicken in
those served and shaped by the curricula of the every pot or a car in every garage. Despair was for
various public schools I attended. I never doubted Communists. Good Americans kept the faith. God
that George Washington was the father of our would not abandon His chosen people. After all,
country or that Lincoln freed the slaves. I believed Manifest Destiny was God’s work–from sea to
the Pil-grims invented Thanksgiving and that shining sea.
Woodrow Wilson sent American troops to France Though I grew up in a segregated society, I
to fight the war to end all wars. did not see myself as the “other” in America. I
Growing up as a child of itinerant migrant sang the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” just
workers, my sense of self was centered in the as loud (however off-key) as my peers who, like
matrix of what Americans believed about their me, were oblivious of the realities that belied the
country and, by extension, about themselves. My message of the song. I pledged allegiance to the
parents believed in the American dream and flag of the Uni-ted States in forte voce, eyes
shunned welfare which they thought was the nadir beaming, hand over heart, sure of my place in
of existence. In other words, the “pits.” Only los America as a citizen of the nation, believing that
desgraciados (the shame-less) went on the dole. someday I could be its presi-dent. Naivete and the
During the depths of the Depression, my father innocence of youth kept alive in me that spark of
worked at many jobs to keep us fed, clothed, and the American dream which text-books all around
housed. Poor but proud! That’s how he thought of me asserted was the birthright of every citizen.
himself. My father would have made a good Like a good novitiate I never faltered in that faith.
Puritan. He was, in addition to being a hard I went to bed praying for all the saints and the
worker, an avowed Socialist. He fled Mexico in president. And, like Pippa, I knew that because
1921 because he thought the Mexican Civil War God was in His heaven all was right with the
(1910-1921) had stopped short of its promises to world.
the people. Our home was consequently a way- I am not suggesting we abandon the American
station for Mexican radicals fleeing the ideological dream or become atheists. On the contrary. “We
storm of Mexico. My father died unrepentant are,” as Shakespeare put it,” such stuff as dreams

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are made on.” The person without dreams is one Modern Greeks learn about their classical
without aspi-rations, without thoughts of what can ancestors in schools, through the media, and in the
be, seeing life as it is and asking “Why?” instead architectural remains of that long-gone period.
of seeing life as it can be and asking “Why not?” Through that historical thread, the Greek ethos
No! The Ameri-can dream is still a good deux ex links the past with the present, instilling in every
machina for the evolving pageant of the country. If Greek the sense of a shared community experience
we lose the dream, we will surely be, as John W. and national pride. The Parthenon is thus a
Gardner (1965) put it, “A less spirited people, a les “living” reminder to contem-porary Greeks of the
s magnanimous people and an immeasureably less splendor that was Greece in antiquity. Homer’s
venturesome people.” However, as Americans, we Iliad and Odyssey have preserved for Greeks the
need to be reassured by realities that the country is essence of the Greek ethos down through the
still committed to the dream. If not, then we are centuries. The spirit of Odysseus beats in every
being opiated by the rhetoric of the dream, offering Greek heart.
us words instead of substance, turning the dream
thus to ashes and like the colocynth–that bitter Ethos, Nation and Self
fruit of the desert–providing neither succor nor
sustenance. It is out of ethos that a concept of nation emerges
and out of which a concept of self blooms. To see
NATIONS AND ETHOS how ethos impinges on the creation of nation and
consequently on the concept of self, one needs but
consider the polities created by distinctive groups.
Characteristics of Ethos A German government reflects the German people.
This does not mean a homogeneous people, but the
An ethos is the way of life characteristic of a
people who consider themselves German or think
particular society in its deep-seated habits of think- of themselves as German (within national
ing and acting. Nations bind their citizens to
boundaries that define that Germanness). Or as the
national aspirations by means of ethos which Greeks of antiquity thought of themselves as
become part of national identity. That’s why
Hellenes despite their different city-states.
Czechs are different from Croats and Croats are Diasporically, German Americans may think of
different from Bosnians. While language and
themselves as Germans but in terms of their polity
culture are indeed distinctive characteristics of a they are Americans. As Americans, it is not the
people, it is ethos which ultima-tely binds together
German ethos they identity with but the American
all the stalks of national identity. In many ways, ethos. They are thus not German nationals but
ethos is the “spirit” of a people, the zeitgeist of a
American nationals. So, too, Mexican Americans
civilization or a system as expressed in its culture, identity not with the Mexican ethos but with the
institutions, ways of thought, philosophy and
American ethos. When teaching American Ethnic
religion. Additionally, ethos contributes to the Literature I ask my students during the first
collective identity of a people, to their sense of
session to tell me their nationalities. Invariably
con-tinuity, to their consciousness of belonging to their responses include: Irish, English, German,
a par-ticular group that exists in time and has
Italian, French, Mexican, Dutch, et al. I then ask
existed his-torically and spatially across the them if they have passports from these countries.
generations.
Realization creeps in and they answer: American.
They have grasped the difference. I explain then
Evolution of Ethos the concepts of national origin and of ethnicity.
Then we talk about the concept of nation.
The ethos of a people is not haphazard. It evolves
over time, out of fact and fancy, out of truth and Nations and Common Heritage
lies, out of myths. In many ways, the ethos of
contempo-rary Greek life and culture, for example,
The principal objective of a nation is to convince
directly reflects the myths of classical Greece. its constituent people(s) that they possess a

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common heritage manifested in the language of the Myth is also a form of discourse, at once
nation. In many countries, a common heritage lies communi-cative, informative, passionate, and
rooted in affiliative beliefs linked ethno-culturally resonant. Joseph Campbell (1988) said myth was
and/or eth- no-linguistically. It is belief in the rooted in human need. That may be why the
common heritage that creates national allegiance. Slovak national anthem, for example, appeals to
Not always, though. An anecdote is told about Slovak identity with the words:
peasants in a district of West Galicia who, when Up, ye Slovaks, our true Slovak language is
asked if they were Poles, replied “We are quiet still living while our loyal hearts are beating
people.” To the question, “Then are you for our nation. Living, living, yes and
Germans?” the peasants replied, “We are decent deathless is the Slovak spirit. Hell and
folk” The anec-dote reminds me how easily we lightning, hell and lightning rage in vain
identity Americans of Mexican ancestry in the against us.
Southwest as “Mexicans.” Consequently, when And the song “America” tells us:
asked if I’m “Spanish” (a euphemism for
Mexican), I sometimes reply, “No, I’m Unitarian.” O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber
waves of grain. For purple mountains majesty,
above the fruited plain. America! America!
Beyond Ethos God shed His grace on thee. And crown thy
good with brotherhood, from sea to shining
Because ethos provides us with a contextual way sea.
of seeing ourselves, it is thus a discursive social
con-struct. George A. Kelly (1963) defines a I confess that when I sing the song my breast
“construct” as an abstract way of contextually swells up with some indefinable emotion–perhaps
categorizing phenomena around us, such patriot-ism, a good word much maligned. After all,
phenomena sorted through a personal or cultural I did serve my country during three wars. But I
template often used like Procrustes’ bed. consider the words of the song America more
Constructively, we see, then, what the ethos lets us symbolic of what America can be than a
see. Einstein understood this phenomenon when he description of what it has been. In like fashion, the
theorized that we see what the language let’s us Pledge of Allegiance says:
see. This is not to say we are inflexibly bound by
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United
the ethos or the language. Merely that ethos (and
States of America and to the Republic for
its language) define the parameters of our ability to which it stands: one nation, indivisible, under
see. Recognizing those limitations, Einstein was God, with liberty and justice for all.
able to move beyond the structures of ethos and
language, inventing a mathematics to Whose God? I sometimes wonder, mortified by the
accommodate what he perceived about the division rampant in the streets, remembering that
universe beyond the boundaries of ethos and blacks did not gain the benefits of liberty until
language. Freud too created a vocabulary to they marched for, bled for it, and died for it in the
accommodate what neither ethos nor language fifties and sixties, and that the quest for justice in
permitted. Because ethos orients the way we see America is still a battle being waged by many.
the world, we do not see (or at least have difficulty Does “justice” mean “just us,” the privileged of
in seeing) the world in various other ways. Robert the mainstream?
Heinlein (1961), the brilliant science-fiction writer,
noted that all the languages available to us at Epistemic Function of Myth
present are inadequate and that the mind loses a
large part of its substance when it comes into Myth serves an epistemic function. The knowledge
contact with words. that anchors us in time and place as a people is
more often than not drawn from a tapestry woven
MYTH AND ETHOS of delicate fibers, spun on looms of memory,
which have transformed coarse mater into a
Myth as Discourse tenuous design of our own choosing. I have used

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this image to define the United States as a tapestry
of may colors, still on the loom, still in the In Cards of Identity (1955), one of Nigel Dennis’
making. The final design of the tapestry still not characters asserts, “Identity is the answer to every-
apprehended. It is through the agency of myth that thing.” Indeed, everywhere we go we are asked to
we learn about our forebears and their struggles for identify ourselves. We carry a profusion of
the nation. The myths of El Cid shape the evidence to prove who we are. Our word is not
consciousness of Spain just as the myths of sufficient. Identity, as I have said, grows out of
Rolande shape the consciousness of France. Robert ethos, out of the concept of self that it promotes.
L. Wilkins (1972) writes, “Historians can debunk Who w e are emerges paramount in the modern
the myths about our past, they can reinterpret the state. Which is why, perhaps, Franz Kafka sought
historical record and rewrite the schoolbooks, but to alert us to the excesses of the authoritarian state
they cannot ignore nor easily dispel, the magic of in its zeal to de-identify the hapless person, to
historical memory to mold [people’s] lives and designate him or her by number rather than as a
thought..” The power of historical memory was person with a name. The Nazis serialized their
evident at the First Vatican Council of 1869-70 victims.
where some Bishops protested the proclamation of
Papal infallibility, pointing out that the historical Identity as Semiotic Code
record did not support it. Papal infallibility won
out because most of the Bishops assembled there Identity is part of the semiotic code of ethos. It is a
argued for a reconstruction of the past based on sign in the scheme of meaning. Perhaps the reason
historical memory rather than the record. identity is so crucial in human history is that it is
central to the roles we play in that drama.
Myth as Empowerment According to Sidney Jourard (1964), “no social
system can exist unless the members play their
Myth is an empowering process. The myth of roles and play them with precision and elegance.”
George Washington and the Cherry tree enhances Much of the world’s literature deals with the quest
our sense of truthfulness, a value we have for identity and meaning. In the epic of
canonized in the American ethos. The myths of Gilgamesh, for example, the hero’s quest is a
the Old West reinforce our sense and awe of the search for this roots in order to find out if he was a
pioneering spirit, another value canonized in the divine god or just a mere mortal. If he was a god,
American ethos. The myth of small towns Gilgamesh thought, then knowing that would help
promotes our regard for the agricultural origins of him play the role appropriate to that knowledge.
the country and our esteem for the bucolic values Many of us stand taller, walk taller knowing we
canonized in the American ethos. The myth of the are descendants of Lord so and so, Prince such and
Alamo stirs our sense of outrage at the slaughter of such. I confess a modicum of hubris knowing I’m
the innocents. Another value in the pantheon of the a descendant (on my mother’s side) of one of the
American ethos. Of course, the myth of the sixteen families from the Canary Islands who
American cowboy–as personified, perhaps, by founded La Villita in 1731, forerunner of the city
Larry McMurtry’s picaresque cowboy. Cadillac of San Antonio. It seems strange to place so much
Jack–gives us pause to reflect on the passing of an value on identity rooted on the tropes of
American icon. The myth of the American cowboy ontological realities–myth and ethos.
preserves the romantic nostalgia we have for an era
that has passed much too swiftly. We have come Identity and Ontology
to place great reliance on the extrinsic symbols of
these myths, believing that great truths lie in their For Paul Tournier (1957), identity is at once an
epis-temology. ensemble of phenomena. “If we concentrate on the
phenomena,” he points out, ”the person escapes
MYTH, ETHOS, AND IDENTITY us; if we see the person, the phenomenon eludes
us.” And yet we are inescapably caught by the
Cards of Identity gravitational pull of myth and ethos in their orbits

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around identity. They are like Charybdis and how reality is understood at a given moment is
Scylla, luring us with their song as we pass determined by the conventions of communication
through the straits of life. in force at the time . . . and how we think and
behave in ordinary life is largely a matter of how
Authenticity we understand our realities (Littlejohn, 111-112)
The French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure put
Much has been written about identity and authenti- it this way: “The point of view creates the object”
city. Many psychologists believe most people are (Dineen, 331). This is not to say that all reality is a
inauthentic, hiding behind imagos (projected ima- construct of the mind. For example, a tree is not a
ges) they proffer as themselves. Apropos of mental construct. It exists in the world. However,
authenti-city, Pascal wrote,”We strive continually how we relate to a tree is part of our discursive
to adorn and preserve our imaginary self,” slaves social construction of reality, our template by
to the personage we have invented or which has which we sort and make sense of the phenomena
been imposed on us (Tournier, 27-28). And still around us. If we see trees in terms of building
we remain mysteries to ourselves as we peel away, materials only, that’s indicative of our social
like onions, the layers of identity. Despite the construct. If we see trees as part of a natural
classical injunction to know ourselves, we move scheme to be preserved, that too reflects our social
through life like Albert Camus’ stranger, alienated construct. The way a dog regards a tree reflects the
from life, even from ourselves because we do not social construction of the dog.
know who we are.
What is Not
The Past and Authenticity
In a musical version of Hamlet which I adapted
Little wonder, then, that we seek to anchor our with Mark Medoff (Tony award author of
“selves” in what we perceive to the surety of the Children of a Lesser God), Bernardo, one of the
past–the myth and ethos of our culture, our nation, guards on the parapet who has seen the ghost of
exalting that past, if necessary, even more Hamlet, Sr., sings (by way of explaining the
fraudulen-tly or hyperbolically. People and nations apparition): “Do you see that tree? That’s no tree
invent themselves, reinvent themselves everyday you see. What you think you see is not. And what
for any number of reasons, as Jean Paul Sartre is not is what you see.” The point is that our
(1964) observed. Pakistan is an invention of Indian senses are not always the most reliable for
Mus-lims. South Africa is an invention of the processing sensory information. This does not
Boers. The new South Africa is a reinvention by mean they are useless, just that we need to exercise
their descen-dants. Our country was invented by prudence in how we assess what we see.
white-European Americans for their own purposes. Sometimes our senses deceive us, filling in for us
That’s not a cas-tigation, but an observation. For what is actually not there. For example, when we
example, Republi-cans invented themselves in look at a quarter moon, many people insist they
antebellum days to gain the presidency. There’s can see the whole ring of the moon. That’s a case
nothing sinister in invention or reinvention. They of our eyes providing for us the continuous surface
are facts of life. America today is not what it was of the moon because that’s what we expect to see.
yesterday; will not be what it is today. Time, tides,
and circumstances change all. Ethos and Change
MYTH, ETHOS, AND REALITY I think it’s important to ask: Why are concepts of
time, space, and matter given differentially to
What is Reality people? Diverging views do not flaw or invalidate
According to the psychologist Kenneth Gergen, the ethos. Such divergences mean merely that the
the world does not present itself objectively to the ethos is in a state of evolutionary flux. In other
observer . . . the linguistic categories through words, the ethos accommodates change, transform-
which reality is apprehended are situational . . . ing itself through the incremental growth and

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development of the people while still controlling Skim milk masquerades as cream.
them. Paradoxical as this may sound, the ethos of Externals don’t portray insides,
a people permeates their existence both limiting Jekylls may be masking Hydes.
and at the same time encouraging them to test the The Puritan Past
barriers it has created for their own order. Nowhere
is this more evident than in the dissolution of the After more than 350 years of American culture, we
Communist empire, controlled by an ethos of still think of the United States as rooted in Puritan
centralization, submission, and forced service to tradition, even though there is little that is Puritan
the state. The ethos emerging in post-Communist in contemporary America. Nevertheless, when a
Russia may look different, but in fact is not. For latter-day minister preaches a fire-and-brimstone
the Russian ethos–as manipulated by the sermon we identify that kind of sermon with the
Communists–is of long duration with roots in anti- Puritan preaching tradition of Jonathon Edwards,
quity. What may emerge is the essential Russian taking little note that fire-and-brimstone sermons
ethos which, like Milton’s unsightly root” in were not the exclusive preserve of American
another country, core a bright and golden flower. Puritans.
The Russian spirit–its zeitgeist–will endure despite When we see Americans working hard, we say
the nature of the government that rules the they are working in the tradition of the Puritan
country. Just as the American people endured the ethic even though the ethic of work–hard work–is
reigns of George Bush and Jimmy Carter, both of found in cultures globally. Still, we identify that
whom had different visions of what they wanted kind of individual enterprise and initiative as the
America to be. Ulti-mately, America will be what Puritan ethic–translated latterly as the Protestant
the American people want it to be–consistent with ethic. So ingrained in the American mind and
the American ethos and the realities it harbors ethos has the notion of the Puritan work ethic
and/or eschews. become that we bemoan the loss of the Puritan
age, failing to realize that the Puritans believed in
VELLEITIES AND REALITIES not feeding those who did not work. Though
OF THE AMERICAN ETHOS seeking God’s grace, they did not believe in
charity, unless it was for the old, the lame, and the
Starting Out inform.
The veils obscuring the realities of America began When we think of the Puritans we laud their
dropping off for me during my undergraduate efforts to establish religious toleration in America.
studies at Pitt where I studied the runes of That notion of religious freedom is deeply
literature and lan-guages. I started out wanting to embedded in the American ethos, but “those
be a metallurgical engineer but wound up as a Pilgrims never dreamed of establishing religious
student of cultures be-cause the requirements of freedom in their colonies. Indeed, they had no idea
that preparation were more compatible with my of [religious] toleration” (Wilken, 9). Religious
new-found intellectual interests. freedom in Puritan America meant religious
After four years, I left Pitt without taking a de- freedom only for them. What is little known about
gree but armed with intellectual curiosity. At Pitt, I the Puritans is that among them in the early
found the Apocrypha and the Areopagitica and Plymouth Colony there was not one who could be
Alduous Huxley’s dictum that “people are not al- called a Man of Letters. Bliss Perry (1912), their
ways who they seem to be nor who they tell each notable critic informs us, “they produced no
other they are.” Restraint often trumps honesty. poetry, fiction, painting, sculpture or music worthy
From that dictum and from some lines of of the name ‘because’ English Puri-tanism was
atrocious verse I extrapolated that the same was hostile to Art.” The Puritan Common-wealth
true for nations, and that what people believe closed the theaters in England and forbade
about them-selves is the product of cultural production of Shakespeare. Only religious verse
formulas nations create to transmit themselves was permitted. That’s why John Milton survived.
cross the generations. The verse goes like this: Americans who today believe the values of the
country in those by-gone days were more
Things are seldom what they seem.
substantive and worthy of reclamation allow the

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velleities about those values to obscure their Not everything from the American past is
historical outcomes. According to Julian Jaynes remember-ed. Unfortunately, much of it is made
(1972), “Looking back in memory is a great deal up, fabricated for whatever purposes have suited
of invention.” the authors or inventors. To this pint, Maxine
Hong Kingston has Bok Goong explain in her
Culture and Beliefs book China Men how the customs of the Chinese
community came into being. “We made them up,”
In the context that I have framed myth and ethos, Bok Goong says. “We can make up customs
what do Americans believe about themselves? I because we’re the founding [fathers] of this place.”
daresay most Americans believe they are self- Many Americans believe that the real history of
reliant, tolerant, forgiving, good-natured, fair, the United States is the one they are carrying in
honest, depen-dable, hard-working, resourceful, their memory. Historians know that history is a
God-fearing, and inter alia, punctual. matter of perspective and interpretation –perhaps
What do Americans believe about their all of life is a matter of perspective and
country? They believe that America values interpretation.
education, equal justice for all, that hard work is
rewarded. Americans believe in the Constitution, Reframing the Question
the separation of church and state. They believe in
being good neighbors. The list is long. How have At this stage of my life I have come to understand
we, as Americans, come to believe these things that wisdom lies not in the answers we provide to
about ourselves and about our country? Who the questions of life but in knowing how to frame
done–it? The American ethos, that’s who done-it! the questions. Sad to say there are people who
But that should not be taken as an indictment. In believe they have the answers and who go on
fact, there is nothing wrong with the American repeating the same actions and behaviors expecting
ethos. The things Americans believe about each time different results. Fortunately for us,
themselves and their country are commendable James Watson (1968) and Francis Crick stopped
traits and values. It is the ethos, after all, that helps duplicating count-less experiments on the structure
us keep our eyes upon the doughnut and not upon of DNA and reframed the question about their
the hole. That comes from a piece of doggerel I inquiry. The result was the discovery of the
chanced upon some fifty years ago during World “double helix.” That was a breakthrough moment
War II: for science. Such a break-through is possible in
As you wander on through life, our understanding of the American past. But we
whatever be your goal, must be willing to look at that past without rose-
Keep your eye upon the doughnut, colored glasses, willing to forego the stance that:
and not upon the hole. My mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with the
facts. Willing to look at the record rather than
Where we run afoul of the American ethos is accept the bishops’ word about the past, ready, like
when we put on rose-colored glasses to look at Watson and Crick, to reframe the question.
our-selves and our past. Things go awry when we
de-ceive ourselves that our conduct is Praise and Values
commensurate with our beliefs. That what we Looking back on our past, then, that mythic and
believe, in fact, is the way we are, always have in-vented past, how can we praise the values of the
been. Like the Bishops of the First Vatican founding fathers of the United States when they
Council, we prefer to believe in our collective did not believe in founding mothers? How can we
memory rather than the record. Unfortu-nately, it praise the values of the founding fathers when
is faulty historical memory that contributes to the many of them kept slaves and believed in the
flawed construction of a nation’s past–and the tenets of that peculiar institution? How can we
realities it believes in. praise the values of Jeffersonian democracy when
those values wee exclusive rather than inclusive?
Tradition and Truth When property was valued more than people? And

8
when some people were valued more as property Realities
than human beings?
In like fashion, the Old West was not as it has
Velleities been painted in American texts. Frederick Jackson
Turner saw it one way. My ancestors in that Old
One of the velleities we have canonized in the West saw it another way. The Old West was not a
American ethos is that a special relationship exists vacant space when Anglo American settlers
between the United States and England since the ventured there. The history of Texas does not
first Europeans who populated the American begin in 1836. Research by Mexican American
colonies were English–from whom we are all historians indicate that as many as 150 Tejanos
cultural and linguistic descendants. What of Native fought at the Alamo instead of the usual six
Americans? Are they chopped liver? And what of sometimes cited. One of the velleities about the
the Spaniards who by 1620 had settlements and Alamo is that Americans were there defending
forts in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, American values. Freedom is not a uniquely
Texas, New Mexico, and California. What of Ameri-can value. The defender of the Alamo were
Cabeza de Vaca’s travels across Texas from 1527 Mexican citizens fighting the Mexican
to 1535? Or Gaspar de Villagra’s epic poem about government. Texas land grants required that
the battle at Acoma, New Mexico in 1590? foreigners acquiring them become Mexican
(Ortego, 1971). This mono-mythic notion of the citizens. The Old West was not a desolate and
English and the growth of civilization in America unpopulated place where one found only patches
has blinded Americans to the realities of European of wild and drunken Indians, lazy Mexicans, and
ingress to the hemisphere. hot-blooded señoritas. Anglo-American writers of
As I said, because ethos orients the way we see the Old West lied about the place. In Two Year’s
the world, we do not see (or at least have difficulty Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, for
in seeing) the world in various other way. Our example, told denigrating stories about the Pacific
children learn early in school about the Mayflower. settlements of Mexico, especially San Francisco,
Sometimes enlightened teachers tell them about from the point of view influenced by his ethos–a
the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, or even hardly tolerant ethos in his time.
about the ship Amistad. On more than one I’m not saying the Hispanic ethos of the nine-
occasion students have challenged my accounts of teenth century was better than the Anglo ethos of
sixteenth century Ame-rica, believing that the the time. On the contrary, I’m saying that the point
English brought civilization to America in 1610, of view of one ethos ought to be considered by the
failing to realize that Native Americans already point of view of the other participating ethos of the
had civilization prior to the arrival of the time .The Hispanic presence in the Old West
Europeans (including the Spaniards). And when I temper-ed the ingress of Anglo settlers to the area.
tell them about the century of Spanish exploration Countless Anglo men married Hispanic women,
in North America preceding the arrival of John had children by Hispanic women, producing issue
Smith in 1610, they smile at me benignly, thinking comparable to the issue produced by Spanish men
I’m some kind of provocateur. Or they’ll say: But with Indian women-a hybrid variation of
the Spaniards were only interested in gold not mestizaje.
civilization like the English who were interested in The image of Hispanics in the Old West by
settling the continent (another myth). They are Helen Hunt Jackson, Gertrude Atherton, and Willa
unaware of the extent to which they have been Cather, for example, were fraudulent, focusing on
influenced by the Black Legend in the American the fantasy heritage of the Old West. Small towns
ethos: that Spaniards and their kinsmen were the in America are not as they are portrayed in myth,
villains in North American history while the as the ethos remembers them. There were far too
English and their kinsmen were heroes in that many small towns where African Americans did
saga. Ameri-cans have created caricatures and not let the sun set on them, stayed off their streets
stereotypes about Hispanics, black, American at night, and stepped off their sidewalks for white
Indians, Asian Ameri-cans, Feminists, Gays, to women. Many African Americans stepped off the
conform to their beliefs about these groups. sidewalks at the sight of any white person. There

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were too many small towns in America where travelers, though, we need to remember that the
African Americans and Mexican Americans had to map is not the territory (Ortego, 1992). Places are
eat outside their restau-rants. There wee too many not necessarily as they are des-cribed in travel
small towns in America where “Nigras” and brochures. In like fashion, the past is never the
“Meskins” could work for whites but could not sit whole story. As story–narrative–we ask: to what
on the same verandas with them. extent is the ethotic narrative (story) of the
As for the American cowboy, he was a American past a matter of pragmatic and creative
vaquero first, passing on the lore of the range to immediacy than of a correspondence to the way
Anglo newcomers who mangled Spanish words things actually were or are? Anthony Kerby (1991)
like calabozo, calling it calaboose; and juzgado, tells us that “although the past is a constant
calling it hoosegow. And thought la riata was one horizon and support for the present, it is not
word, adding the English article “the” to the word thereby given with fullness of meaning to
“riata” which already had the article “la”–thus reflection and recol-lection,”–the latter being both
saying “the” the” rope when saying “the lariat.” “selective and inter-pretive.” This is an easy
Cowboy voca bulary reflects its Hispanic origins elision to the Lacanian notion of memory and
in words like ro-deo, chaps, mustang, mesa, reality–the metaphoric and metanymic
arroyo. Linguistic appro-priations are inevitable transformations of experience and cog-nition,
consequences of languages in contact. Histories of neither of which are concerned with verisimi-litude
the American past should reflect more accurately but with the construction of a past that meets our
those contacts and those appropria-tions. approval. Thus, the American ethos historizes
velleity as reality.
Historical Amnesia
One of the more pernicious velleities of the SUMMING UP
American ethos is that of America as a redeemer
nation. Wilkin points out that such an expectation In Ecrits, the psychologist Jacques Lacan (1977)
has grown out of “the historical interpretation of contends that “the unconscious is neither
the uniqueness of the American past” and that primordial nor instinctual; what is knows about the
“even to this day, the belief in a ‘redeemer nation’ elementary is no more than the elements of the
shapes the self-understanding of this nation, signifier,” that “the world of words . . . creates the
influences its way of life, education, and culture, world of things.” In other words, human
and even determines aspects of our foreign phenomena are interpreted subjectively via
policy.” Talk about Political correctness. Such a language. That is, things are what we say they are.
heroic view of the United States requires an The world is as we “say” it is and not the way we
awesome historical amnesia not to men-tion an do not “say” it is. Subjectivity has thus fecundated
equally awesome historical myopia. This is not to the American ethos. To conclude, ethos is a
say one should not think well of one’s country. powerful construct by which human endeavor is
But we do, after all, expect Germany to face up to valorized. The ethos becomes thus a guiding telos,
its Nazi past. It seems fitting to ask the same of the creating for us sustainable velleities and realities
United States, to face up to its past. Any country, that support our identity and direction in time and
really. space.
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Still, the vitality and unity of a nation depend on
common memory, common hope, and common Belok, Michael V. (1973). Forming the American
faith rooted in that memory. It is well, however, to Mind. Agra, India: Satish.
remind ourselves that the value of historical
memory is that it allows us to deal with our angst Berger, Peter L. And Thomas Luckmann (1966).
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