Sunday, June 7, 2009

The American Southwest

I'm always surprised at how fun it is to write a post about my own country. I thought today I would write about the American Southwest, which has its own very unique culture and mindset, because I wanted to learn more about why that region is the way it is. The Southwestern US is generally thought to comprise Arizona and New Mexico as the core states, with parts of California, Texas, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Oklahoma also containing elements of the Southwest culture, depending upon their proximity to the core. There are four factors, I think, that have had the largest role in shaping the Southwest culture of the United States: Native American influences, Spanish immigrant/Mexican influences, Anglo American influences, and the unusual climate of the region.

No other region of the United States has a climate like the Southwest. The region is extremely dry and hot, routinely reporting the highest temperatures anywhere in the US, with Death Valley, California averaging 98 degrees F (36.7 C) in summer. This results in wide swaths of desert and arid landscape, and many cacti and other heat-tolerant plantlife. Mesas, dry plains, and caves systems dot the lower part of the region, and mountains with forests at higher elevations can be found in the upper area of the Southwest. This hot, dry climate has shaped the culture of this region immeasurably - what should a people do to survive in a desert-like climate, where nothing will grow and you bake to death in the hot sun? 

Several Native American groups survived very successfully in this region, namely the Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, Apache, and other lesser-known groups. Some of these native groups built beautiful, terraced pueblo homes out of adobe, a type of clay. Through intricate irrigation systems, they were able to raise maize (corn), squash, melons, beans, and cotton, and also raise livestock such as sheep. A unique culture arose among these groups. Even today, the small remaining populations, mostly living on reservations, craft some of the finest silver and turquoise jewelry in the world, and weave gorgeous wool and cotton blankets and clothing. One smaller tribe, the Pima, wove such wonderful cotton items that you can still see their name at many stores on the packages for high-quality sheets and blankets. Although the Native influence isn't as strong as it once was, this region still has one of the nation's largest Native populations and it affects the culture more strongly than anywhere else in the US.

Of course, the Spanish were the first to settle this region, and held the territory until the Mexican-American War ended in 1848. Only 150 years have passed since the Southwest was part of Latin America, and that culture strongly influences the region - probably even more so, due to its proximity to the Mexico border and the large number of immigrants from that country. One of the most
notable influences Latin-American culture has had on the Southwest is in the realm of cuisine. An entire category of cuisine, Tex-Mex, originates from the Southwest. According to Wikipedia, it is similar to Mexican cuisine, but uses larger cuts of meat, and uses less of tripe and brain (considered undesirable to the more finicky Americans). Like Mexican food, it's known for its use of spices (especially the chile pepper) and accompaniment with beans. Chili con carne, fajitas, and chiles rellenos (stuffed chiles) are well-known Tex-Mex dishes. Latin-American culture also affects the language - many people in the region speak a unique dialect of Spanish. "Because of the historical isolation...from other speakers of the Spanish language, the local dialect preserves some late medieval Castilian vocabulary considered archaic elsewhere, adopts numerous Native American words for local features, and contains much Anglicized vocabulary for American concepts and modern inventions." (source: Wikipedia) Cool, huh?

And of course, there is the the modern influence of the Anglos, who presently make up the majority of the population and who have dominated the culture since the mid-1800s. It is a pleasure, though, to see the strong remnants of the other cultures which have survived in the Southwest and mingled in such a unique, positive way. Thanks to all the great Postcrossers who sent me the beautiful cards from this region. Every image you see in this post shows postcards I have received in the mail. Thanks!


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