Last Tuesday morning we dropped our daughter/stepdaughter and grandchild off at the airport in Veracruz for their return trip to Oakland. We walked out of the terminal building into the soft early morning air a little before eight, too early to get our car permit business taken care of, so we decided to wander around the city for a bit. We hardly knew Veracruz, our main experiences being lost in it at night trying to find the airport. We can now find the airport; we’re not yet sure we can find the easy way to the road back to Xalapa from the airport, especially at night, when our next guests arrive.
Veracruz was named Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz by Hernán Cortés when he landed there almost five hundred years ago in 1519 on his way to the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Its age shows itself everywhere. For every newly rehabilitated building, paint and plaster and stone, layers and layers of it, peel away on arches and half-open doorways and crumbling walls and walkways that lead into the shadows.
We parked a couple of blocks away from the old port area on a skinny one way street, an elementary school on one side, narrow stores crammed against each other on the other. Drivers honked impatiently as parents stopped their cars to let off their kids. Women scrubbed the sidewalks in front of their small tiendas; people darted in and out to pick up breakfast at one of the counter restaurants; jefes yelled orders to loaders and unloaders.
As we wandered toward the harbor, the crammed streets gave way to the serene, cream colored buildings behind elegant wrought iron fences and perfect green lawns that make up the headquarters of the Mexican Navy. We stopped at a small park in front of the Naval Museum. Some old folks were doing serious exercises: high kicks, toe touches, big stretches. Behind them, parade music burst forth and then died suddenly as a naval brass band tried the same phrase over and over for its conductor.
Across the street, we saw an ochre-colored eighteenth-century building with a small sign: Archivos y Biblioteca Históricos which houses historical documents pertaining to the city dating back to the seventeenth century. Inside, one of the librarians, perhaps the head, led us into the area the public could use for research. He pulled out books and magazines, hints of the richness of the collection. Among them was a contemporary work on “La Intervención Estadounidense”, the United States Intervention, which took place in 1846.
But for now, perhaps a little history for all of us is in order.
This Intervention is known in the United States as the Mexican War or the Mexican American War. Its final results were that the U.S. gained more than half of the territory that had been Spanish, then Mexican: roughly parts larger or smaller of what are now, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah and Colorado. Texas also became part of the U.S. at this time, but by a slightly different route.
Since I live on the southern side of La Frontera, I find it really interesting, no more: important to flesh out my understanding of the intersection of Mexican and U.S. history – to see it from the Mexican as well as the U.S. side, and of course I feel that it is just as important for you to do this, too.
In the United States, we give fairly short shrift to history, most of us retaining, perhaps, only the vague belief that we are somehow special because of our history, that our country is “the best in the world”, that we saved Europe in World War II. Jay Leno loves to poke us for our ignorance: when was George Washington President? When was The Second World War?
In Mexico, even among the less classically educated, history lives. Enrique Krause, a Mexican historian, quotes Jose Morelos Villa:
History endures in Mexico. No one has died here, despite the killings and executions. They are alive – Cuauhtémoc, Cortés, Maximilian,
Don Profirio, and all the conquerors and all the conquered. That is Mexico’s special quality. The whole past is a pulsing present. It has not gone by, it has stopped in its tracks.
I would say that it’s not that it lives in the minds of all the young people – in their remembering dates and all the details. But they always have reminders: every pueblo has its streets named after heroes of the War for Independence or the Revolution. The year is marked by patriotic celebrations which have not turned into days for cookouts or shopping. Feast days tie people to their pasts: El Día de los Muertos, the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, to mention some more famous examples.
So even if there is not a detailed knowledge of history, there is a sense of being part of the passage of time and of roots planted and roots torn up.
And yet: my Mexican professors at UNAM said one of the biggest negatives of NAFTA and global capitalismwas the steamrolling of identity tied to culture and history and its replacement with the creation of masses of people no longer tied to place or family. It would be worse than foolish to say this older identity was somehow representative of an idyllic past because it was anything but. And yet, and yet, what does this sprawling megalopolis of modern life portend….
So for a future installment I will deal with the North American intervention. And you will understand that for at least some Mexicans, it is still very much present in their minds, though I don’t know too many USAers who even remember that there was a Mexican American War.