Postcard from Merida, Mexico: A house that henequin built

Texas farmers’ need for a digestible binding material for bales of hay tossed to cattle gave rise to incredible wealth in the Yucatan, a boom that lasted from 1880 to 1915. Operating under the favorable conditions for the wealthy to further enrich themselves, aristocrats in Mexico were able to take advantage of a native plant – henequen – and cheap native labor to bankroll a lavish lifestyle built upon production of the requisite fiber. In 1914, more than one-million bales of henequen were exported from the Yucatan.

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Postcard from Mexico City: Rivera freed stories from ancient stones

After vanquishing the Aztecs in Mexico City, Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) requisitioned the stones from the destroyed palace of Moctezuma II (1466-1520) to build his home on the same site across the plaza from the Cathedral. While much of this building was devastated in 1692, the stones were incorporated yet again as the building blocks for what is known as the National Palace, the current home of Mexico’s Treasury and Archives departments.

Working on an immense mural on a massive staircase within the governmental building between 1929 and 1935, Diego Rivera (1886-1957) released some of the stories witnessed by those stones. Tackling centuries of the history of Mexico in one composition, he viewed his painting as an opportunity to redefine the national identity. An accompanying set of murals, added between 1940 and 1951 and covering part of the walls on the second floor, traced pre-Hispanic history and the early roots of products of Mexico.

Instead of presenting history through the traditional European descendant lens, an anti-Indian and anti-Mestizo lens, Rivera glorified what it meant to be Mexican. He did not shrink away from presenting the brutal horror of the conquest or the corruption he saw within the clergy or the reign of Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915). Native Americans and those of mixed race were given dignity as the true faces of Mexico.

Diego Rivera belonged to a generation of Mexican muralists who picked up paintbrushes as others would swords. His paintbrush was wielded as a powerful didactic tool for shaping public opinion and affecting political change.

Postcard from Mexico City: A mountainous amount of history reflected in Chapultepec Palace

In 1725, the commanding Chapultepec hilltop rising steeply 200 feet above Mexico City was the site chosen by Viceroy Bernardo de Galvez (1746-1786) for his manor house. During the Mexican War of Independence, the site was abandoned. The Mexican government then remodeled it for use as a military academy.

Two hundred cadets, some as young as 13, were among the 1,000 Mexican soldiers guarding the citadel when General Winfield Scott (1786-1866) set his eyes on the target as a strategic asset facilitating the capture Mexico City during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848.) Following intensive shelling, American troops were able to scale the fortress and engage in bloody hand-to-hand combat with the defenders.

The costly victory for participating Marines is engrained deeply in the corps’ tradition, “From the halls of Montezuma….” For Mexicans, the battle heroes remembered are six brave cadets who refused to surrender. Fighting until the bitter end, one wrapped himself in the Mexican flag before leaping off the precipice so the flag would not be captured. Virtually every city in Mexico has an avenida memorializing the valor of the cadets, los ninos heroes.

Captured flags arouse countries, and the aging silk banner of the New Orleans Greys seized by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876) during the 1836 Battle of the Alamo is displayed in Chapultepec Castle today despite continual efforts to negotiate its return to San Antonio. History always is subject to the interpretation of the teller, and it is not surprising that the slant given the Mexican-American War in the United States differs slightly from the version presented in the museum housed in Chapultepec Castle.

For the United States, the war represented the fulfillment of its Manifest Destiny. As explained on the San Jacinto Monument, the Texians’ victory at the Battle of San Jacinto laid the foundation for the next violent chapter of relations between the neighbors:

Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the decisive battles of the world. The freedom of Texas from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the Mexican War, resulting in the acquisition by the United States of the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma. Almost one-third of the present area of the American nation, nearly a million square miles of territory, changed sovereignty.

With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States paid the Mexican government $15 million, or about $15 per square mile, for the land it now claimed.

The treaty meant Mexico lost half its territory for the same amount of money paid the French for the Louisiana Purchase. The interpretation at Chapultepec records the war as a land grab by its greedy neighbor, a war that cost many their lives. At the very bottom of the signage is a quotation from President Ulysses S. Grant, expressing shame for the “wicked” war.

Grant’s words, however, were not taken out of context. Here is a longer portion from an 1879 interview given by Grant:

I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign…. I considered my supreme duty was to my flag. I had a horror of the Mexican War, and I have always believed that it was on our part most unjust. The wickedness was not in the way our soldiers conducted it, but in the conduct of our government in declaring war…. We had no claim on Mexico. Texas had no claim beyond the Nueces River, and yet we pushed on to the Rio Grande and crossed it. I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion.

Another intrusion into Mexico’s sovereignty occurred soon after. The $15 million received from the United States did little to alleviate the debt Mexico incurred during the expensive war. President Benito Juarez defaulted on Mexico’s loans from France. A conspiracy between out-of-power Mexican conservatives and Napoleon III resulted in an 1862 invasion by France. The French were defeated in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, the reason for the annual Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

But that was one battle, not the entire war. While the United States was occupied fighting the Confederacy, France succeeded in installing Maximilian I, a Hapsburg prince, as Emperor of Mexico. Emperor Maximilian transformed the castle into his residential palace with a grand boulevard, now known as Paseo de la Reforma, leading into the heart of the city.

Not surprisingly, many in Mexico were not fond of having a foreign monarch with no command even of the Spanish language, and forces loyal to Benito Juarez executed him in 1867.

During the extended off-and-on terms of President Porfirio Diaz from 1876 to 1911, the castle served as his palatial headquarters as well. Amazingly, during the following tumultuous years of the Mexican Revolution that followed, much of the opulent décor contributed by Maximilian and Diaz remained unscathed.

Chapultepec was declared a national museum in 1939.

Masterful murals depicting the revolutionary period were commissioned in the late 1950s to 1970s. Juan O’Gorman’s (1904-1982) murals commemorating Mexican independence were begun in 1960. Work by David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) was interrupted when he was imprisoned followed anti-government protests in 1960, and he completed his 175-foot mural after his release in 1964.