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United States of ... Spain?

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The U.S. Senate has just given the OK to hang on its walls a portrait of Bernardo de Galvez. Who? Bernardo de Galvez, the cheerful and humble Spaniard who was Governor of Louisiana, Viceroy of New Spain, Commander in Chief of the Caribbean fleet, which included the French navy, and one of the biggest heroes of the American Revolutionary War. Never heard about him? Don't be ashamed. I am not surprised. It's only recent that I accidentally discovered the immense contribution that Spain made to the creation of the United States while I was doing research for my book, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan. The Spanish legacy in the US is something nobody seems to have a clue about. Neither Americans, nor Spaniards. Two thirds of the actual territory of the U.S. was once under Spanish rule, and for some reason, that fascinating part of history has never been told.

We tend to picture the Spanish conquistadors as being mostly located in Mexico or down in the jungles of Peru. Well, surprise, surprise. The Spaniards were also the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon, the first to cross the Mississippi River, the first nonnative Americans to populate the Great Plains or the first Europeans to land in Alaska. The reality, as portrayed in the book Banderas Lejanas (Far away Flags) is that "much before the United States existed as a nation, Spain had already conquered the Far West and fought or made treaties with the main Indian tribes that Hollywood would later make famous." Where do you think cowboys came from? Which language do you think the words lasso, corral, rodeo or stampede came from? Look for google images of the annual El Rocio pilgrimage in the south of Spain and you would think you are witnessing an episode of The Little House on the Prairie.

It turns out that Spain also played a pivotal role when the United States gained its independence from England. I'll give you an example. Guess who was standing to the right of George Washington in the American victory parade of July 4, 1783. Ready? Bernardo de Galvez. Whaaat? Yes, Galvez, a guy from Macharaviaya (a small hamlet of 500 inhabitants in Malaga, Spain) after whom the city of Galveston, Texas, was named. Galveston is actually a derivation from the old Galveztown, you see. Now. Why on earth was this guy to the right of President Washington in such a historical moment for this nation? Very simple: Washington thought he owed a big portion of his victory to the King of Spain, both for his military and economic support. And he seemed to be particularly moved by the courage and fine military strategy of General Don Galvez (as the President warmly referred to the Spaniard in the complimentary letters that he addressed to His Catholic Majesty from his headquarters in New Windsor). As Martha Gutierrez-Steinkamp writes in her book Spain: The Forgotten Alliance, "it wasn't until Spain entered the war, as an ally of France on the side of the colonists, that British naval superiority was overwhelmed. What appeared to be a local conflict with the objective of controlling the rebellion in the colonies, suddenly turned into a naval conflict that took place in all the oceans." The Spanish participation was also crucial in the final battle of Yorktown. Spain had no soldiers in New York, but its generous infusion of money from Mexico and Cuba, paid for the French forces in America and made possible the full support of the combined troops of Rochambeau and Washington."

Okay, so what exactly did General Galvez do? Pretty much he denied the British the opportunity of attacking the Americans from the South. Let me mention just a few facts. First, he destroyed the English commerce on the Mississippi. In 1776, as Governor of Louisiana, he issued an order urging all English subjects to abandon the territory within fifteen days. Soon after, he signed a treaty with the Americans which allowed them access to the Spanish port of New Orleans. The patriots could then navigate and enjoy free trading along the Mississippi river, making it possible for supplies to be sent to the their soldiers. But wait, there's more. Bernardo and his troops (an army of 7,500 men made up of Spanish, French, African-American, Mexican, Cuban and Anglo-American forces) defeated the British at battles in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Natchez, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama. Then, Galvez alone also gained control of British West Florida. In 1781, he managed to get past the English controlled Pensacola Bay (Panzacola under prior Spanish domain), forcing his indecisive Caribbean fleet to follow him. In addition to the conquest of this strategically crucial land for Washington's defense, Galvez captured large quantities of English war material and left the British with no naval bases in the Gulf of Mexico. For his bravery, the King of Spain allowed him to include on his coat of arms a ship with a flying pennant that had written on it, "Yo Solo," or "I Alone."

In Washington's words: "if the Spaniards would but join their fleets to those of France and commence hostilities, my doubts would all subside -without it, I fear the British Navy has it too much in its power to counteract the schemes of France." So, without the support of the Spanish Armada -- the world's most powerful fleet in the 18th century -- the colonies would have never won the war against England. But it was only the French that received the glory. Specifically General Lafayette, which has a street named after him in practically every city of the United States. How is that possible? Very simple. It wasn't in Spain's King Carlos III best interest to publicize the news that his country supported the freedom of the North American colonies ... since the idea of independence could dangerously spread to the Spanish colonies of Central and South America.

And now, let me introduce to you Teresa ¨Tere¨ Valcarce, better known as "Demonstration Tere" due to her addiction to rallying for causes. Anytime there is a good reason to fight for justice, you will find her there. Tere was born in El Ferrol, Spain, and studied tourism in the Andalusian province of Malaga. There she used to work at the information counter of the airport. One day in 1991, a passenger approached her seeking help. He introduced himself as an American, but Tere detected a southern Spanish accent from Cadiz. "Pal, you're Spanish." "No, I am not" "I think you are." He was indeed an American, but raised on the military base of Rota where his father was posted. To make a long story short, they stayed in contact and approximately four years later, he sent her a message: "tomorrow morning I will land in Malaga again". It was meant to be. Malaga was celebrating its annual fair, la Feria. After having a drink over here, and a dance over there, they started to see each other and in 1999 they were married and moved to Maryland. Tere had her first child Paul in 2005, and two more would follow: Lucas and Lucia. In 2008 Demonstration Tere became a U.S. citizen.

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Last March, Tere's mother sent her an article published in Diario Sur. The Malaga based newspaper mentioned that the US Congress had a pending account with Mr. Galvez. "The United States has a pending account with a war hero?" wondered Mary. "It couldn´t be true" -- she thought. "If there is anything that Americans do well, it is precisely to honor their heroes." She contacted the journalist Manuel Olmedo, a researcher of the historical figure of Galvez. He gave her a copy of a document that he had discovered in Washington´s National Archives. It was a Continental Congress Resolution dated back to May 1783, by which the United States accepted a portrait of Galvez donated by a famous Patriot named Pollok, and was to hang it in the room "in which Congress met." But the order never took place.

Tere responded to Olmedo: "Okay, don't you worry. I will go to Capitol Hill and let them know about this historical error so it can be fixed." And off she went. She made phone calls to Philadelphia, to Washington, to the Congress, to the Archives... and nobody knew anything about such a Resolution. "What should I do now?" Then a television crew from a TV show called Spaniards Abroad showed up in the District of Columbia. The TV producer called Tere and arranged for a tour around the city with her. Amazingly, by chance, on the day of the shooting they ran into a Congressman from Maryland that just so happened to be Chris Van Hollen, Tere's Congressman.

At the end of the interview Van Hollen said goodbye to Tere, thinking that she was part of the technical team. "Nice to meet you" said the member of the Democratic Party and proceeded to walk away... But Tere grabbed him by the arm stopping him: "Wait. It was nice to meet you, but you can´t leave without helping me out." "What?" the Congressman protested. "What do you mean I can´t leave?" "You have no choice but to listen to me because I am American and you´re my Congressman." Ok. He stayed and listened to Tere. "Mr. Van Hollen, there is a US Congress Resolution taken 231 years ago and the Congress has not complied with it yet." Van Hollen's reaction consisted of only three letters: "Wow!" That same evening, when Tere went home, she had an e-mail waiting for her from the Congressman's office: "we are interested in Galvez. Please get in touch with us ASAP." It was Emancipation Day, April 16, 2013. Since then and until October, Tere and Van Hollen's staff together prepared a report to present to the Congress Chamber of Art.

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At Christmas the response of the United States House of Representatives came. The recommendation was for Galvez's painting to be part of a temporary exhibit, and not to be displayed in the permanent collection on Capitol Hill. Big disappointment. Now what? In January, the Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, came to the US for a visit. Tere managed to access Mariano and tell him the story. Rajoy went ahead and mentioned the Galvez Resolution to Obama. One day later, Rajoy granted the Medal of Queen Isabel to Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat of Cuban origin that has close ties with Spain. The Spanish Prime Minister decided to tell him the story too, and suddenly a door opened. Menendez, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, could accept gifts from foreign nations on behalf of the United States. What about a painting from an old Revolutionary War hero?

Tere went to pay a visit to Senator Menendez's staff. She presented the case, and Menendez thought it was fair to resolve such a historical error. The local government of Malaga (Diputacion Provincial) requested that a letter be send to the U.S. Senate which would grant permission to accept the painting. It did, and on Thursday October 17 the response of the Senate Ethics Committee came: the portrait of Galvez was accepted as a gift to the U.S. and earned a place on the Senate's walls. Yahoo!

Now, what a great opportunity to set the story straight and to finally learn about a missing piece of our common past. So, in the country of show business, why don't we make it fun? Wouldn't it be exciting if the newly crowned King Felipe VI of Spain, on his first official trip to the United States in September, be the one to hang the picture? The momentum is now on Galvez's side. Last January, a group of Congressmen from Florida introduced a joint resolution in the House of Representatives requesting "that Bernardo de Galvez, who risked his life for the freedom of the United States, played an integral role in the Revolutionary War and helped secure the independence of the United States, is proclaimed posthumously to be an honorary citizen of the United States." On July 22, the resolution was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. An honorary citizenship is an extraordinary honor neither lightly conferred nor frequently granted. Only 7 people have obtained it to date. Among them: General Lafayette -the other Revolutionary War hero -- Winston Churchill and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. If granted to Galvez, people are going to want to know who that fellow was. The painting's history may help to clarify Galvez importance to our country. Otherwise, historian Douglas Brinkley will be spending many hours going back and forth from CBS to CNN studios giving all sorts of explanations.

The visit of Felipe VI will also coincide with the celebration of Spanish Heritage Month in the U.S. What better timing than to recall a forgotten legacy, especially one that will generate much interest. Finally, in gifting Galvez's portrait to the people of the United States, Felipe VI will follow a family tradition. Let's rewind to 1976. That year, his father King Juan Carlos I paid his first official visit to Washington and brought to the people of the U. S. .... a statue of Galvez! Today, the equestrian bronze stands among the statues of the American liberators on Virginia Avenue, behind the Department of State.

I can't wait to see a happy ending of Galvez's last battle. There is nothing better than a country reconciling with its past. Through him, Americans may surprisingly discover how much Spanish influence plays a role in their daily lives, much more than can be imagined. I mean, I don't envision Steven Colbert to suddenly changing his name to Esteban... It's just that Galvez's legacy happened to be a single star in a constellation of many other Spanish American legends ... some of which may feed the appetite for the media, hungry for good stories. For example, did you know that the dollar was the Spanish currency used in the thirteen colonies and its actual symbol $ was directly copied from the peso sign? Or that the bearded medieval character, Lord of the Rings material, framed in laurels on the wall of the U.S. Capitol's Chamber of the House of Representatives is Alfonso X, king of Castile from 1252 to 1284?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the hamlet of Macharaviaya, Malaga, will have no choice but to ready itself for the imminent influx of American tourists interested in discovering the land of the General that helped to achieve their country's independence. Somebody better start working on new T-shirts with Galvez style wigs and the logo I ALONE, because it may well be a bestseller next 4th of July.