Inventing Matamoras: Gender and the Forgotten Islamic Past in the United States of America

Article excerpt

Today, if you drive north on U.S. Highway 84 through Pennsylvania, just before you cross the Delaware River into New York State, a sign for the town of Matamoras appears. When I first saw the name one summer en route from Texas, I assumed with surprise that people in Pennsylvania must have had some direct connection to Santiago, the patron saint of the Spanish Reconquest since his miraculous military intervention in driving the Muslims from Spain had earned him the honorific Matamoros, or Killer of Muslims. Yet, I found it puzzling that the Pennsylvania town spelled the reference to this saint with a feminine ending, a gendered alteration that does not exist in the Spanish-speaking world. Matamoras with an "a" seemed to embody a new saint, whose name as placed in Pennsylvania now meant Killer of Muslim Women. The forgotten Islamic past in the United States had, seemingly, been living under an assumed, invented name.

Inventing Matamoras happened repeatedly in the nineteenth century in the United States. Between 1846 and 1849, four towns, as well as schools, churches, and one post office, would be named Matamoras. This nineteenth-century trend, reflecting the invasion and conquest of Mexico by the United States between 1846 and 1848, spatially memorialized American military victories that ultimately resulted in the creation of new southwestern borders. Before the war with the United States, the town Matamoros, Mexico, had not been defined as a site on the southern border of the United States. After the war, maps would be redrawn to reflect the extraordinary U.S. territorial gains, including its victorious national incorporation of Texas along with the former Mexican territories that would eventually comprise the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. As the first Mexican town conquered by the United States in 1846, Matamoros, Mexico, survived in U.S. history as an emblem of American victory. The Mexican Matamoros thus became a named precedent, celebrated with incorrect orthography, a series of U.S. heartland military memorials transferred from one side of a new political and cartographical reality to another, from south of the new U.S.-Mexican border to far north of it.

Matamoros, Mexico, however, had a unique history of its own, which predated the Mexican-American war. In 1826, forty years before the American invasion, the city of Heroica Matamoros had been newly renamed in celebratory national homage to the revolutionary Mexican warrior-priest, Mariano Matamoros, who died in 1814. This Matamoros, a surname of a martyr to Mexican independence shot by the Spanish armed forces for treason and heresy, was celebrated by Mexican nationalists in town sites and memorials throughout Mexico.

U.S. troops conquered, occupied, and carried home the name to their northern and western heartland as a moveable trophy, a symbolic reflection of a newly defined border that provided ample room for American expansion at Mexico's expense. The transport and corruption of the Mexican hero's name, from a masculine to a feminine, is not the end of the invention of Matamoras, but only the beginning of a cultural process of remapping a spatial past to fit new historical specifications. The ultimate symbolic linkages between Matamoros, Mexico, and the four towns named Matamoras in the United States reveal a complex, profound, and ironic outcome of the historical continuum. The historical saga of the name's multiple incarnations encompasses explicit and implicit cultural connections between medieval and emerging modern ideals of religious and nationalist war, ideologies of territorial expansion, Spanish and American imperialisms, as well as Mexican independence. If inventing Matamoras was simply an exercise in American popular celebrations of a nineteenth-century military victory over Mexico, then its Islamic connotations would remain forgotten, dislocated from its multiple historical meanings. In fact, most of the American inhabitants of Matamoras remain ignorant of the extraordinarily potent symbolism resonant in their towns. …