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The Pocket Guide To Mexican History
Warning: may cause drowsiness. Avoid operating heavy machinery.
I remember history classes in high school as the most boring, sleep-inspiring classes I've ever attended in my misspent educational journey. It wasn't until I was done with formal education that I came to the realization, after reading a few books by writers who actually knew how to write (or who weren't constrained by rules imposed by various departments of education) that history can be a compelling and fascinating subject. And it wasn't until I started reading history books written by writers who were born and educated in countries other than the United States that I came to realize that history is often muddled through the lens of nationalistic perspective and pride. In the event, somewhere after or amongst those realizations, I began consuming books on history like soda pop - giving Barnes & Noble, Borders and eventually Amazon way too much of my earned income in order to feed my addiction.
Fast-forward to a few weeks ago somewhere in Mexico, I don't remember exactly where, and I am overhearing a conversation (in English) in which person A is explaining to person B that the Mexican Revolution had all started in Guanajuato, and that Guanajuato was where person B needed to go to find the interesting places and monuments associated with the Revolution. I bit my lip. That person A was conflating Mexican Independence with the Mexican Revolution is an honest mistake. If person A was from the U.S. where the "revolution" was the independence movement, then the confusion is even more understandable. In any event, that conversation snippet led me down the dangerous path of wanting to write a post identifying some of the timelines and events in Mexico's history. So here goes.
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1519 - 1521: Spanish Conquest
First, let me be very clear: Mexico's history does not begin with Europe's arrival and colonization. Mexico was rich with glorious indigenous empires when most of Europe was struggling to keep candles lit in clapboard villages and straw huts. I am starting with post-Columbian history because, well, I want to keep this article at a reasonable length (plus I don't want my fingers to get tired). That said, yes, the Spanish arrived in what is today Mexico, and with their superior technology and diseases defeated many of the indigenous empires in New Spain (Mexico), beginning with the most powerful - the Aztecs, whose empire fell to a coalition of Spanish military and indigenous enemies of the Aztecs. With the defeat and death of the last Aztec tlatoani (ruler), Cuauhtémoc, and the fall of Tenochtitlan (the seat of the Aztec empire, basically modern day Mexico City), Spain gained an insurmountable military advantage in New Spain. The next 300 years saw Spanish ports, cities, and people spread across New Spain, paid for primarily through the extraction of riches from the region's bounty of gold and silver mines.
1810 - 1821: Mexican War of Independence
300 years is a long time to bear the yoke of colonial rule. And Mexico was tiring of Spain and its rapacious appetite for precious metal and forced labor.
On September 16 in the year 1810, a Spanish Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued, in the town of Dolores in central Mexico, El Grito de Independencia (the Cry of Independence). The exact words of Hidalgo's verbal cry are lost to history, but the gist is a call to arms to destroy the native Spaniards who represented the ruling elite of New Spain. Hidalgo was a visionary and charismatic man, who rallied many of New Spain's indigenous peoples to his cause. What the army Hidalgo built lacked in training and equipment, they made up for in sheer numbers. The early day's of Hidalgo's insurrection against Spanish rule saw numerous, often shocking military successes. These successes were, however, short lived, and Hidalgo ultimately ran into Spanish forces that compelled his surrender in March of 1811. He was imprisoned, excommunicated, tortured and finally executed on July 30, 1811.
But the spirit of the independence movement lived on through allies of Hidalgo, which included a captain in the Spanish Army named Ignacio Allende, who himself would be captured and executed in June, 1811. Fortunately, a brilliant, practical and profoundly competent priest named José María Morelos picked up the cause and carried it through 1815 until he was captured and executed. By this time, the fever for independence was too big to contain. Vicente Guerrero, who would become the 2nd President of Mexico (and who would abolish slavery) took up where Morelos left off. In a decisive campaign against the royalist general Agustín de Iturbide (whose military prowess was such that he was known as El Dragón de Hierro, "The Iron Dragon"), Guerrero convinced Iturbide to switch sides and join the rebellion. The tide was solidly against Spain, who tired and ultimately surrendered New Spain. And thus was an independent Mexico born.
1838 - 1839: First French Intervention (Pastry War)
This began, unlikely enough, after a French pastry chef living in Mexico claimed that his pastry shop was looted by officers of the Mexican army (other French citizens in Mexico began to make claims of uncompensated property damage as well). This slight against French citizens resulted in a French naval blockade of various ports along the Gulf of Mexico. Mexico's General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who had been enjoying retirement in his Xalapa hacienda, was annoyed enough by the whole affair to unilaterally come out of retirement and confront the French. Santa Anna enjoyed some victories, lost a leg, and the intervention ultimately ended as pointlessly as it started.
1846 - 1848: U.S. - Mexico War (Intervención estadounidense en México)
The war between Mexico and the United States really started with the U.S. annexation of Texas, a complicated mess involving the U.S. appetite for slavery (slavery had been abolished in Mexico in 1829) and a treaty that was contested by Mexico because it was signed by then president of Mexico Antonio López de Santa Anna (Santa Anna figures prominently on both sides of the mid-1800s: he retired from the military, he un-retired, he became president, lost the presidency, once more became president; over and over again) while he was being held captive by the Texas Army.
The annexation of Texas did not go over well with Mexico, which sent troops over the Rio Grande river where they attacked and defeated U.S. soldiers who were scouting near a Texas farm field in Rancho Carricitos. This provoked U.S. President James Polk into declaring war on Mexico.
A superior U.S. navy was able to blockade key shipping ports in Mexico, and the U.S. army with better provisions, supply chains and artillery marched south into Mexico, eventually capturing and occupying Mexico City.
An interesting side note for those of you who notice street names in Mexico: I've yet to visit a city or town in Mexico that doesn't have a street named Niños Héroes. The U.S. occupation of Mexico City is the event that gave rise to the "children heroes": Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City has been an imperial residence (see the "Second French Intervention" section below), a presidential palace, and now, Mexico's National Museum of History. During the U.S. - Mexico war, it was a military school. The legend of the Niños Héroes holds that 6 cadets - aged 13 to 17 - refused to abandon the castle as the U.S. forces advanced. They chose to fight to the death, or in some cases to leap to their own deaths from the castle walls, rather than surrender to the enemy forces. Their memory lives on as a patriotic symbol of Mexican heroism. Whether or not this event actually took place is still open for debate, but history is as much about legend as it is about facts.
The Niños Héroes notwithstanding, the U.S. occupation of Mexico City sealed the fate of this conflict. The spoils of war were that the U.S. gained not only Texas, but California and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Wyoming - in all, an area representing over half of the land area of Mexico at the time.
1854: La Reforma and 1857 - 1861: War of the Reform
I mentioned these briefly in my previous article about Benito Juárez. The reform laws were codified during the presidential administrations of Juan Alvarez, Ignacio Comonfort and Benito Juárez. These liberal laws, along with the liberal Constitution of 1857, limited land ownership by the Catholic Church and various indigenous communities; the intent was to enable a more robust economy through free enterprise and individual land ownership. These laws also limited the power of the Mexican military, and provided more checks and balances between Congress and the President.
Conservatives were unhappy, sought control of the government, and the War of the Reform broke out, lasting 3 years with the liberal government faction prevailing. The liberal victory was short lived, however: Juárez suspended foreign debt payments around this time, which France then used as one of their excuses for what would become the Second French Intervention.
1863 - 1867: Second French Intervention (Second Mexican Empire)
Mexican conservatives, having lost popular elections and armed conflict with liberals, began to gravitate toward the idea of introducing a monarchy in Mexico, one that would be more sensitive to the conservative ideals of the Mexican nobility and clergy. These conservatives found an ally in then Emperor of France, Napoleon III. It also provided Napoleon III an opportunity to help out his European ally, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, whose brother Maximilian was whining about wanting some position of stature befitting his noble heritage.
So off Maximilian goes with his wife Charlotte (soon to become known as Carlota in Mexico) to become Emperor and Empress of Mexico, with France backing this outrageous intervention. Benito Juárez and his government - still recognized by the U.S. (but not by much of Europe) as the legitimate government of Mexico - fled the capital and set up a shadow government in various locales in the north. But Maximilian and Carlota became the real show, with Maximilian becoming more and more enamored of his new "empire". He ultimately took a Mexican mistress and spent many of his days lazing in the tropical splendor of Cuernavaca.
Maximilian's heart was in the right place, if not his legitimacy. He truly fell in love with Mexico, and became more and more tolerant of liberal ideals, to the point where he ultimately upheld the liberal Reform Laws, thereby upsetting his conservative backers.
The Second French Intervention (also known as the Second Mexican Empire) fell when Napoleon III's troubles at home distracted him sufficiently to give up on his designs in Mexico. Napoleon notified Maximilian that he was withdrawing the French troops who were the muscle behind Maximilian's precarious position as emperor, and urged Maximilian to return to Europe, knowing that the ousted liberals would soon regain control of Mexico and look unfavorably on Maximilian's presence.
Ah, but Maximilian was in love. Not so much with his wife Carlota, who had the good sense to flee to Europe, but with Mexico and the idea that Mexico would just continue to love him back. No such luck: the Juárez government took back control of their country and imprisoned Maximilian. Maximilian - the naive, harmless romantic that he was - posed little threat to the legitimate government of Mexico by this time. Nevertheless, and despite pleas from European leaders to spare his life, Juárez made the decision to have Maximilian executed. Too bad, Benito - you should have taken the high road.
1910 - 1920: Mexican Revolution
I touched on this in my article on the modern Constitution of Mexico. To catch you up: the Mexican Revolution was largely orchestrated by Francisco I. Madero, Pancho Villa, Pascual Orozco and others in response to the effective dictatorship of perennial President of Mexico Porfirio Diaz. Nominally, the revolution began in the state of San Luis Potosí, where Madero drafted his Plan de San Luis Potosí wherein he urged the Mexican people to rise in arms against the Diaz government; and in the northern state of Chihuahua, where armed struggles first broke out.
Although Diaz was ousted in 1911, infighting, coups, factional disputes and back-and-forth power struggles between conservatives and liberals continued for a decade. The Zapatista movement arose during this period of upheaval and uncertainty; Pancho Villa waged his own revolution on horseback and entrenched himself forever into the popular imagination; the war-within-a-war Civil War of 1913-1914 broke out; presidents were assassinated; allegiances were routinely formed and broken. The revolution was a bloody cacophony, and the final discordant tones were finally muted when three Sonoran generals named Álvaro Obregón, Plutarco Elías Calles, and Adolfo de la Huerta seized the reigns of power by force (commonly known as the Revolution of Agua Prieta) in 1920 and introduced some practicality and ultimately peace in the form of a coalition-building government under the leadership of Huerta.
The above is, of course, a pretty anemic overview of Mexican history. Please don't confuse my hand-wavy treatment of hundreds of years of struggle and chaos and heroism and deeds good, bad and indifferent as anything more than the Jeopardy answer that it is. Just don't let me catch you confusing Mexican Independence with the Mexican Revolution. Or I'll write another article, so help me.
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