Part 1: The Occupation
Tuesday, September 14, 1847, dawned beautifully and crisply over the spires and domes of Mexico City. The high altitude of the place (7,382 feet/2,250 meters above sea level) gave the weather the feel of an early autumn morning in the sleepy Central American highlands. In the city of roughly 200,000 souls, the day could have been like any other, but events around the federal city over the past month had caused this to be no ordinary day for the history of the town—or for that of the nation as well. For today U.S. Expeditionary Forces under the command of General Winfield Scott would begin their year-long occupation of Mexico City, beginning in a grand military parade into the central square to take place three days later.
For three days the expeditionary forces fought their way through the small and winding streets of the centuries-old city (founded in 1325 by the long-gone Aztecs) in dense and bloody urban combat, fending off Mexican sharpshooters, fortified gun emplacements, and ordinary roused citizens in defense of their families and homes. The Americans—and their hired mercenaries—would fight just as tenaciously, demolishing walls to move within homes, clearing opposition in their way. Though backbreaking as using picks and axes were, it made for a better prospect than having to face the withering enemy fire from outside. The nearly decimated Mexican Army, led by the beleaguered General/Dictator President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, could only watch in the hills north of the city as their country’s capitol slowly fell under enemy control.
When it was all over, over five thousand American and Mexican soldiers along with countless Mexican civilians (the city had not been prudently evacuated) lay dead, wounded, captured, or missing along the streets of the ancient City.
After a hastily arranged surrender in the dead of night from the highest-ranking Mexican officer still alive within the city, the expeditionary force of over six thousand Americans marched wearily into the center of town, facing sporadic fire from the surrounding hills and some abusive taunts from the demoralized citizenry. Most residents of Mexico City, however, kept their doors and windows closed tight, lending the scene a remarkable stillness and eerie silence in the air, punctuated by the snap of arms, the shout of command, the clack of hooves, or the whistle of a stray enemy bullet or mortar shell.
Despite being outnumbered by most estimates at least three to one, despite fighting in a terrain wholly alien to them, despite suffering more casualties though diseases such as dysentery or yellow fever (from ravenous mosquitoes), and despite major defections from several Irish battalions (their main reason for laying down arms was their unwillingness to fight against fellow Catholics), in six months US forces had crossed half a hostile continent and now occupied a foreign capital for the first time in its history. It was a welcome change for a restless country, boldly on the move.
It had only been thirty-three years before when the British had laid the same humiliation on the United States with the occupation, sacking, and burning of Washington, DC, during the War of 1812. And save for sporadic wars against Native Americans (the Black Hawk War) and a short skirmish against Spanish Florida in 1821, the United States had been in need of a well-earned victory against a worthy foe.
As the occupation came to an end in the summer of 1848, various officials, aristocrats, scholars, and writers of Mexico began informal discussions in the occupied capital. They had no official agenda other than to tell a story—their side of the story—in the conflict they had lost. The result of their work was a voluminous book called Apuntes: Notes for the War Between Mexico and the United States.
The book was a valedictory of sorts, for though they were a conquered nation, they refused to be a conquered people. From this defeat they would take the hard-earned lessons to build a new nation and forge a unified people as well. The same could also be said of the United States in its victory, although its new identity would be forged in a conflict much longer and from a victory more ambiguous and costlier than the war in Mexico had been.
For now the two nations would share a new border stretching from Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. And although the two nations would share this border for over two centuries, both would act less as brotherly neighbors but instead would treat one another more as silent, unknowing strangers. Sometimes it would appear their only common interest lay between their shared frontiers.
Since that conflict the United States of America and the Republic of Mexico have shared a strained and unique relationship, as compelling as a modern-day telenovela or soap opera. From border disputes, differing cultures, and values, down to the meaning of human and national identity and race itself. The United States and Mexico carry with them the embodiment and challenge of two New World countries with the legacy of Old World sensibilities and customs. To this day the interaction between the two shows a mark of suspicion and disdain rather than friendliness or mutual respect.
This series will cover that relationship, from its very first awakening in the colonial era, through both nations’ internal and external strifes, to the one each has with the other today. It is a tale of generals and politicians, farmers and soldiers, honest leaders and downright scoundrels. It is a story of love and hate, war and peace, drugs and crime, money and commerce.
But above all it is about people—ordinary everyday people—on both sides of the Rio Grande, who collectively make the countries of the United States and Mexico.