Meet Bernardo de Galvez y Madrid. Never heard of him? He’s a Spanish military leader who was — among other things — the colonial governor of Louisiana and Cuba. He is credited with helping the original thirteen American colonies gain independence from the British. The city of Galveston, Texas, is named for him, and there are statues of him in Washington, DC, Florida, and Texas. A famous “haunted portrait” of de Galvez hangs in the Hotel Galvez, in Galveston.
He’s been dead for more than 200 years, but he’s back in the news thanks to Republican efforts to make Galvez — who’s been resting in peace in San Fernando, Mexico — an honorary citizen. Late Friday evening, Sen. Marco Rubio (R, Texas) introduced S.J. 38, a joint resolution conferring honorary citizenship upon Galvez. Rep. Jeff Miller (R, Florida) introduced the House version in January.
Whether its fair to measure historical figures by modern standards is debatable, but it’s hard to overlook Galvez’s part in the genocide of Native American’s who happened to live on land that Europeans — convinced of their cultural and racial superiority — claimed as theirs by “divine right.” (Yes, genocide. Try visiting the National Museum of the American Indian, and reading about the countless numbers who died during massacres and forced migrations, without feeling like you’re visiting a holocaust museum.)
Galvez was famous for his departure from conventional “Indian policy” of the time. Prior to Galvez, Spanish policy had always been to deny arms to Native Americans in the New World. With relatively few troops under his command, and outnumbered by the Apaches and Comanches who historically warred with each other, Galvez reversed the old Spanish policy, and actively provided arms to the Native American tribes.
Before anyone takes him for an early gun-rights advocate, or the NRA bestows honorary membership upon him, there was a method to Galvez’s madness. Then Viceroy of New Spain Bernardo de Galvez spelled it out when he advised Spain to ally with the Comanches against the Apaches. It was not because he had any great love of the Comanches. “The vanquishment of the heathen consists in obliging them to destroy one another,” Galvez cynically wrote in his 1786 “Instructions.”
Even then, it was nothing new. Galvez’s cold-blooded strategizing was right out of the “Divide and Conquer” chapter the old imperialist handbook. The Romans used it when they took over Britain, and the British applied it in India. It worked like a charm in Africa, where Germany placed the already dominant Tutsi minority in positions of power. Belgium finished the job by rearranging the Tutsi and Hutu groups according to artificial “racial” categories instead of occupation, and setting up the socioeconomic conflict that played a major role in the Rwandan genocide,
So, why are Republicans trying to make a dead guy who’s been buried in Mexico for 200 years an honorary citizen, while blocking immigration reforms that might offer a path to actual citizenship for undocumented immigrants? Well, Bernardo de Galvez does occasionally turn up on list of “Latino Contributions to American History,” despite being from Spain, and therefore Hispanic and not Latino.
Maybe Republicans are too afraid of the right-wing of their party to stand up for immigration reform. Maybe Republicans are betting that Latinos are idiots, and can be mollified by moves like this. Most likely, Republicans are so deluded that they don’t understand that Latinos will blame the GOP for failing to pass immigration reform. Conferring honorary citizenship on one guy who’s been dead for more than 200 years won’t make anyone forget millions of living breathing human beings waiting for a path to real citizenship, or forgive Republicans for blocking that path.