Mexico Has Not Forgotten Its War With the States





Tim Weiner, writing in the New York Times (Jan. 9th, 2004)

In the American South, William Faulkner once wrote, the past isn't dead. It isn't even past.

This may become truer the farther south one goes.

In the United States, almost no one remembers the war that Americans fought against Mexico more than 150 years ago. In Mexico, almost no one has forgotten.

The war cut this country in two, and"the wound never really healed," said Miguel Soto, a Mexico City historian. It took less than two years, and ended with the gringos seizing half of Mexico, taking the land that became America's Wild West: California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and beyond.

In Mexico, they call this"the Mutilation." That may help explain why relations between the nations are sometimes so tense.

As President Bush prepares to fly down to Mexico from Texas, where the war began back in 1846, the debate here over how to relate to the United States is heating up once again.

The question of the day is the more than 20 million Mexicans who now live in the United States.

But sensitivities about sovereignty surround every thorny issue involving Americans in Mexico. Can Americans buy land? Sometimes. Drill for oil? Never. Can American officers comb airports in Mexico? Yes. Carry guns as lawmen? No. Open and close the border at will? Well, they try.

To realize that the border was fixed by war and controlled by the victors is to understand why some Mexicans may not love the 21st-century American colossus. Yet they adore the old American ideals of freedom, equality and boundless opportunity, and they keep voting, by the millions, with their feet.

In"a relationship of love and of hatred," as Mr. Soto says, bitter memories sometimes surface like old shrapnel under the skin.

Fragments of the old war stand in the slanting morning sunlight at an old convent here in Mexico City, a sanctuary seized by invading American troops in 1847, now the National Museum of Interventions, which chronicles the struggle.

"The war between Mexico and the United States has a different meaning for Mexicans and Americans," said the museum's director, Alfredo Hernandez Murillo."For Americans, it's one more step in the expansion that began when the United States was created. For Mexicans, the war meant we lost half the nation. It was very damaging, and not just because the land was lost.

"It's a symbol of Mexico's weakness throughout history in confronting the United States. For Mexicans, it's still a shock sometimes to cross the border and see the Spanish names of the places we lost."

Those places have names like Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Fe, El Paso, San Antonio; the list is long.

The war killed 13,780 Americans, and perhaps 50,000 or more Mexicans -- no one knows the true number. It was the first American war led by commanders from West Point. These were men like Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. A little more than a decade later, Grant and Sherman battled Lee and Davis in the Civil War.

Historians are still fighting over how and why the battles of the Mexican War began. Some say it was Mexico's fault for trying to stop the secession of what was then (and to some, still is) the Republic of Texas. Some say it was an imperial land grab by the president of the United States.

President James K. Polk did confide to his diary that the aim of the war was"to acquire for the United States -- California, New Mexico and perhaps some other of the northern provinces of Mexico." When it was won, in February 1848, he wrote,"There will be added to the United States an immense empire, the value of which 20 years hence it would be difficult to calculate." Nine days later, prospectors struck gold in California.

Aftershocks still resonate from the Mexican War -- or, as the Mexicans have it,"the American invasion." The students who walk through the National Museum of Interventions still gasp at a lithograph standing next to an American flag.

It shows Gen. Winfield Scott riding into Mexico City's national square --"the halls of Montezuma," in the words of the Marine Corps Hymn -- to seize power and raise the flag. He had followed the same invasion route as the 16th-century Spanish conquerors of Mexico. The American occupation lasted 11 months.

Many of the 75,000 Mexicans living in the newly conquered American West lost their rights to own land and live as they pleased. It was well into the 20th century before much of the land was settled and civilized.

Now, that civilization is taking another turn. More than half of the 20 million Mexicans north of the border live on the land that once was theirs. Some 8.5 million live in California -- a quarter of the population. Nearly half the people of New Mexico have roots in old Mexico. Mexico is, in a sense, slowly reoccupying its former property.

"History extracts its costs with the passage of time," said Jesus Velasco Marquez, a professor who has long studied the war."We are the biggest minority in the United States, and particularly in the territory that once was ours."


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