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War & remembrance: the U.S. and Mexico share a long, sometimes-troubled history that goes back to the Mexican-American War--which still resonates on both sides of the border.

Almost no one in the U.S. remembers the war that Americans fought against Mexico more than 150 years ago. In Mexico, almost no one has forgotten.

The Mexican-American War of 1846-48 cut Mexico in two, and "the wound never really healed," says Miguel Soto, a historian in Mexico City. The war took less than two years, and ended with the U.S. 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."

The Mexican American War forms the background for many of the current tensions between the two countries, including problems along the border, illegal immigration, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its economic fallout on both sides of the border.

Today, more than 20 million Mexicans live in the U.S., and the debate over how the two neighboring countries should relate to each other continues. The passage 10 years ago of NAFTA--which initiated free trade between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada--caused a flurry of economic activity south of the border and resentment in the U.S. that the agreement "exported" blue collar jobs from the U.S. to Mexico.

Earlier this year, President Bush unveiled a proposal to give temporary work visas to millions of illegal immigrants, many of them Mexican. The plan--which would, in effect, grant amnesty to more than 4 million Mexicans now living illegally in the United States--was part of an effort to smooth relations between the two countries.


Understanding that the border was fixed by a war helps explain the mixed feelings some Mexicans have toward the U.S.

"The war between Mexico and the United States has a different meaning for Mexicans and Americans," says Alfredo Hernandez Murillo, director of Mexico City's National Museum of Interventions, which chronicles the war. "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," he adds. "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, and San Antonio. The list is long.


The roots of the Mexican-American War go back to 1835 when Texas, which was then part of Mexico, revolted, and after a brief war, declared itself independent in 1856. But Mexico refused to recognize the new Republic of Texas and warned the U.S. that if Texas was admitted to the Union as a state, Mexico would break off relations.

James K. Polk, who supported territorial expansion and annexing Texas as a state, was elected President in 1844, and the following year, the U.S. granted Texas's request to join the Union. True to its word, Mexico broke off ties. At that point, the U.S. probably could have resolved the conflict peacefully, but President Polk wanted additional Mexican territory. There was a growing sense among Americans that the country's "manifest destiny" was to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In May 1846, Congress declared war on Mexico.

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 the U.S. Military Academy at West Point--men such as Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis, who all later fought in the Civil War.

Polk wrote in 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 the war 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.

Today, 156 years later, at the National Museum of Interventions, students touring the galleries still gasp at a lithograph hanging next to an American flag. The lithograph, which is reproduced on the cover of this issue, shows American General Winfield Scott riding into Mexico City's central square to seize power. (The Marine Corps Hymn calls the square "the halls of Montezuma," a reference to the famous Aztec leader.) Scott 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 right to own land and live as they pleased. It was well into the 20th century before significant settlement took place on much of the land.

Now, more than half of the 20 million Mexicans north of the border live on land that once belonged to Mexico. 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, reoccupying its former land.

"History extracts its costs with the passage of time," says Jesus Velasco Marquez, a professor at the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico in Mexico City. "We are the biggest minority in the United States, and particularly in the territory that once was ours."


* Why do you think that few Americans remember the 1846-1848 war, while almost no Mexicans have forgotten it?

* Should the United States grant amnesty to illegal immigrants from Mexico to help smooth relations with that country?


To help students understand how the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 still reverberates in the Mexican conscience and how it colors U.S.-Mexican relations more than 150 years later.


BEFORE READING: Write "Manifest Destiny" on the board. Explain that students will be learning about this 19th- century belief that the U.S. had a right--indeed, a duty--to push westward to the Pacific.

THE WEIGHT OF HISTORY: Tell students that just as Americans learn history from the American point of view, so do Mexicans learn history from their point of view. Note that the article refers to the 1846-1848 conflict as "the Mexican-American War," while Mexicans refer to the conflict as "the Mutilation."

Does this difference in terminology help explain why few Americans remember the war, while almost no Mexicans have forgotten it? (Ask students why they think the Mexico City museum that chronicles the war is called the "Museum of Interventions.")

SECESSION STUDY: Note that the secession of Texas from Mexico is identified as the root cause of the war. Ask: Did Texas have a right to revolt against Mexico and join the United States? However students answer, tell them that some Mexicans argue that their government's refusal to recognize Texas's secession is exactly the same as the U.S. government's refusal to recognize the secession of Southern states, an event which led to the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). What would happen today if one or more states announced that they were going to join Canada?

FAST FACT: Historians attribute one of the earliest mentions of "Manifest Destiny" to President Andrew Jackson. In 1824, before he was President, Jackson said the U.S. was "a country manifestly called by the Almighty to a destiny which Greece and Rome, in the days of their pride, might have envied."

WEB WATCH: nifestdestiny.html is a PBS Web site that offers six articles on Manifest Destiny, plus a Mexican view of the war.

Upfron QUIZ 3

1. Mexicans remember the 1846-1848 war with the U.S., very clearly; in Mexico, the war is called the

a American encounter.

b deadly encounter.

c betrayal.

d mutilation.

2. Blue-collar American workers complain that many of their jobs have moved to Mexico as a result of an economic agreement called



e OAS.


3. President Bush proposes to ease an area of tension between the U.S. and Mexico by

a erasing tariffs on goods imported flora Mexico.

b granting legal counsel to Mexican prisoners in the U.S.

c granting amnesty to Mexicans living illegally in the U.S.

d increasing military aid to Mexico.

4. The roots of the Mexican-American War go back to

a Mexican expansion into the U.S. in the 18th century.

b a German alliance with Mexico to invade the U.S.

c a Canadian-Mexican military pact.

d Texas's secession from Mexico in 1836.

5. The U.S. might have resolved its conflict with Mexico peacefully, but

a President James Polk wanted to seize Mexican territory.

b Mexico had broken diplomatic relations with the U.S.

c U.S. national security was threatened by Mexico.

d Mexico rejected all efforts at a peaceful resolution.

6. The term "Manifest Destiny" refers to Americans' belief that

a exploration was the work of God.

b the U.S. was the world's best country.

c the Revolutionary War had demonstrated that Britain no longer had any claim in the Americas.

d America's fate was to expand across the continent to the Pacific.


1. (d) mutilation.

2. (a) NAFTA.

3. (e) granting amnesty to Mexicans living illegally in the U.S.

4. (d) Texas's secession from Mexico in 1836.

5. (a) President James Polk wanted to seize Mexican territory.

6. (d) America's late was to expand across the continent to the Pacific.
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Article Details
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Author:Weiner, Tim
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 5, 2004
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