Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Patriotism in Chapultepec

Entering Mexico City from the south, signs point off to the right to the military academy.  The name of the institution is always preceeded by the capital letter H, for Heroic -- an award given to it by Congress after the heroic defense of Chapultepec Castle on September 13, 1847, during what the U.S. refers to as the Mexican-American War, known in Mexico as the North American Invasion -- 164 years ago today.  

Though the H. Colegio Militar's campus abuts the highway, the first indication it is an army installation is not a sign but six eagles on a rocky ledge found just north of the toll booth.  These eagles never fly away.  They are concrete eagles representing the Niños Heroes, six heroic cadets who died in defense of the Military Academy when it was attacked and seized by U.S. soldiers and marines.  The current location of the Heróico Colegio Militar dates from 1976.  In 1847 the institution was located in Chapultepec Castle, atop Chapultepec Hill, considered by ancient Mesoamericans to be one of the four sacred mountains in the Valley of Mexico (the others being the Cerro de Tepeyac, location of the Basilica of Guadalupe; the Peñon de los Baños overlooking the Mexico City airport; and the Cerro de la Estrella in southern Mexico City).  

Accounts of the battle for Chapultepec Castle vary, not just from the points of view of the opposing sides, but also in the way each side remembers the battle.  The account I prefer is that upon being told that an attack by the U.S. Army and Marines was imminent, six cadets signed entered into solemn pact to never surrender.  If necessary they would offer their lives in defense of both their institution and their nation.  Other cadets also fought heroically but were either killed in battle or taken prisoner.  When the last of the six heroes realized he couldn't possibly hold off the enemy by himself, he lowered the flag, wrapped himself in it and jumped off the cliff.  

Mexican school children know the names of the six heroic cadets by heart. Los Ninos ranged in age from 14 to 20.  School children know who the oldest and youngest were; they know it was Juan Escutia who wrapped himself in the flag.  

The Mexican-American War is glossed over in US elementary and secondary educational textbooks, probably for the same reasons President Grant expressed in his memoirs, writing of the war as a massive land grab.  “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the [annexation of Texas], and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

Nevertheless U.S. school children do learn the Marine Anthem though I would be very surprised if many of them know the “Halls of Montezuma” is, in fact, Chapultepec Castle. To this day, tradition maintains that the bright red stripe running the length of the outside of the trouser leg of the U.S. Marine dress uniform is a reminder of Marine blood shed at Chapultepec Castle.

Each September 13th the Mexican President, along with representatives of the Mexican legislative and judicial branches of the federal government, accompanied by H. Colegio Militar cadets, lay wreaths to honor the Niños Heroes at the Altar a la Pátria monument  located at the base of Chapultepec Hill.  The monument includes six marble columns, each topped by an eagle with outstretched wings.  In fact if you see six of any type of monument in Mexico -- columns, obelisks, flagpoles -- it is likely to be a symbolic representation of the Niños Heroes.

Visiting heads of state often lay wreaths at the monument.  Understandably, it isn't common for U.S. Presidents to do so.  Nevertheless President Truman, in 1947, and President Clinton in 1997, included wreath laying ceremonies in their schedules.  U.S. Ambassador Patrick Lucey, appointed by President Carter, earned goodwill, making his first official act placement of a wreath in honor of the Niños Heroes. 

Rumor has it that the new U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Earl Anthony Wayne, will present his credentials today at the National Palace.

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