The most overt historical origin points for Mexican American relationships and identities are far different from, and in many ways precisely opposite to, our most prominent narratives of them.
This is certainly a competitive category, with the Spanish American War being the strongest alternative competitor (and the Civil War creeping up the list, due to the many arguments that it wasn’t about slavery), but I would argue that no American military conflict is more consistently and egregiously misunderstood than the Mexican American War. Perhaps “misunderstood” is the wrong word, since it doesn’t seem to me that there’s much understanding or even specific information at all about the war in our popular narratives; instead, it seems clear to me that the entirety of the war has been reduced to a sense (thanks largely to John Wayne et al) first of a vast army of Mexicans massacring a small, brave band of rugged frontier types at the Alamo, and then of American forces avenging them while rallying behind the (still celebrated) cries of “Remember the Alamo.”
There are so many inaccuracies within those images that it’s difficult to know where to start, but the central problem is this: neither the Alamo nor the subsequent military actions were part of the Mexican American War, nor did they involve the United States of America at all! The battle of the Alamo took place in 1836, after a group of (largely) European American settlers in the Mexican state of Tejas had decided to declare their independence from that nation and establish the separate Texas Republic; Mexico’s president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna led an army to put down the rebellion, and the Alamo was the first battle in that war. (The somewhat less famous massacre of Texas Republic troops at Goliad was the second.) It is indeed the case that Sam Houston led an army that responded to those losses and defeated Santa Anna’s forces at San Jacinto, and perhaps they were shouting “Remember the Alamo” while they did so; but that too took place in 1836, and helped cement the Texas Republic’s status as an independent nation. Ten years later, in 1846, the United States initiated its own hostilities with Mexico, largely in order to complete the annexation of the Texas Republic into the nation (which was one of the two prominent results of the 1848 US victory in the Mexican American War; I’ll discuss the second, the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, tomorrow).
If virtually all of the histories we associate with the Mexican American War are actually from a decade prior to it, it stands to reason that there’s plenty that can and should be added to our understanding of that war, perhaps especially in terms of the almost certainly illegal actions taken by the Polk administration to foment the conflict. But if we do connect, with more nuance and analysis, the 1836 events and the Texas Republic to the later war, our narratives of Mexican American history change even more significantly. After all, the Texas Republic’s secession from Mexico was not at all unlike the Confederacy’s secession from the Union; supporters of the Republic would argue that Santa Anna was a brutal dictator who had forced the Republic’s hand, but of course the Confederacy took much the same position toward the federal government and the Lincoln Administration. Whether the analogy holds or not, it’s at least crucial to note that “Texas” was a Mexican and Mexican American community for centuries, and that even during the period of the Texas Republic and the later Mexican American War it remained as much a part of Mexican American identity as it did European American. Certainly the 1848 US victory led to the temporary expulsion of many Mexican Americans from the state, but that shift in no way elides the long history of Mexican American identity there (nor of course has it remained static in the century and a half that followed).
Over the next two posts, I’ll try to amplify what this kind of shifted understanding of Mexican American history, community, and identity can contribute to our American narratives and histories. More tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
1/25 Memory Day nominee: Charles Reed Bishop, the businessman who moved to Hawaii in the mid-19th century and became one of the most inspiring benefactors of the state’s native population, educational system, and cultural heritage and identity: founding with his native Hawaiian wife a school for young natives, working after her tragically early death to preserve the school (in conjunction with his more general support for Hawaii’s land through his founding of the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society), and endowing a trust that has continued to benefit young Hawaiians to this day.