The heroic boys of Chapultepec

10/10/2013

West Marin celebrated Mexico’s independence on Friday, September 13 at the Dance Palace Community Center, in an event organized by Gallery Route One and its Latino Photography Project. 

In Mexico, independence is celebrated on September 16. There is a big military parade in Mexico City, but the main celebration takes place on the previous night. From the central balcony of the National Palace, before a huge crowd, the president repeats the Declaration of Independence—el Grito de Independencia—that priest Miguel Hidalgo shouted in 1810 in the little town of Dolores. The president rings the same bell with which Hidalgo signaled the beginning of a battle that would not end until 1821, when Spain conceded the independence of many of its American colonies. 

In every city and town, governors and mayors repeat the ritual. People at home, as well as in this country, can see el Grito on television, and they celebrate with typical food and music and nationalistic expressions of every sort.

It is an American custom to celebrate other countries’ holidays on a different date than the official one, usually on Fridays or the closest weekend, so that no one misses work. This happens with Cinco de Mayo, which is hardly ever celebrated on May 5, although its name is the date itself. Hence Mexican Independence this year was celebrated here on September 13. 

Two hundred years later, few remember that the colonial territory that became Mexico also included California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. It is ironic that while they celebrate that independence in Mexico, in the former Mexican territories the celebration is seen as foreign and perhaps as a concession to Mexican immigrants. Although those states, along with Hawaii and other American possessions, were never British colonies, they celebrate independence on July 4.

Another irony arises when we review the history of the expansion that made the United States the most powerful country in the world. Every September 13, Mexico celebrates the actions of los Niños Héroes, six young cadets who, in 1847, died defending their country at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. They refused the orders of General Nicolás Bravo to surrender the fort to the invading American army. Legend has it that one of them, Juan Escutia, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and threw himself from the ramparts, avoiding capture by troops commanded by General Winfield Scott.

The war between Mexico and the United States, begun in 1846, ended two years later with the defeat of Mexico and the forced sale for $15 million of almost half its territory. The U.S. had wanted to expand to the Pacific and the area between the two oceans; in particular, it wanted California, for which it offered $30 million. The other states were indispensable to the building of the railroad to the West Coast. Mexico refused, and the U.S. decided to claim its southern Texan border with Mexico as the Rio Grande, rather than the Rio Nueces, further north. 

Texas had just declared independence from Mexico, and was immediately annexed by the U.S., mainly because of its agricultural productivity, especially in cotton. War was declared and the troops of Winfield Scott took the port of Veracruz, and a bloody battle advanced to Mexico City, where they attacked the Chapultepec Castle, a military academy and one of Mexico’s bastions. After the victory, they razed the city.

At the time, Mexico was a young, impoverished and disorganized country. Its strongman was General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who was eccentric and narcissistic, with the aura of a dictator. He was both hero and villain—in 12 years he was president 11 times—but this time his military errors precipitated the defeat. This episode is of paramount importance not only to the worldwide expansion of the United States, but also to the history of relations between the U.S. and Mexico, inevitable and uneven as ever, with the weakness of one facing the strength of the other.

At the recent Dance Palace celebration, I approached José León while he was presenting his excellent young salsa band, Futuro Picante Band, and asked him to announce that Mexico was on that day remembering the Niños Héroes de Chapultepec. To my surprise, he handed me the microphone, obliging me to explain to the few gringos and Latinos present the ironic situation that, on the same day on which Mexico remembers its defeat at the hands of the U.S. and the loss of half its territory, in a small town in California we are celebrating Mexico’s independence, and this in one of the lost territories. It was a seemingly unnoticed double contradiction that speaks to the enormous and unavoidable cultural divide and power gap that endures despite our best intentions between Mexicans and Americans in our beloved and contradictory West Marin.

 

Victor Reyes is a Sonoma-based translator, language teacher and writer, and a native of Puebla, Mexico, with decades-old ties to the Point Reyes Light. The Spanish language version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.