Not long ago, the patriotism of Mexican-Americans was called into question at an international soccer match in Los Angeles. Anglo-Americans were outraged that Mexican-Americans booed during the playing of the American national anthem and then cheered for the Mexican, rather than the American, soccer team.
It wasn’t so much that the fans were acting discourteously that so deeply offended the Anglo-Americans. After all, international soccer games are not exactly known for the civility of the fans. Rather, what angered the Anglos was what they considered the obvious point that the Hispanic fans, by cheering for Mexico instead of the United States, were acting unpatriotically. In the minds of those who favor the closing of America’s southern borders, this was proof positive that Latin American immigrants could never be trusted to be loyal to the United States.
But patriotism can be a tricky business. Were the Mexican-American soccer fans in Los Angeles, in fact, behaving unpatriotically? To answer this question, it would be helpful to explore the background, history, and circumstances by which California, where the controversial soccer game took place, as well as Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, became part of the United States. If people are able to gain a better understanding of other people’s reasoning, sometimes human relationships can be improved.
Before Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the Spanish Empire stretched from Central America all the way to the lands encompassing the current states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. These territories also included parts of the current states of Utah, Colorado, and Nevada. The Spanish had tried to encourage people to colonize these northern reaches of New Spain but had been only partially successful. Indian raids and desolate country had discouraged Spanish colonists from moving north.
When Spain acceded to Mexican independence in 1821, after ten years of revolution, all of this territory became part of the new nation – Mexico. To discourage foreign intrusion into the northern part of their country, the Mexican authorities also did their best to encourage Mexican citizens to colonize in the north. Again, they were only partly successful. Mexican population levels in the northern part of the country remained relatively low.
What is important to keep in mind though is that all of these territories – and virtually all the people who lived there when Mexico won its independence – were Spanish and Mexican. The language and culture were Spanish and Mexican. People ate Spanish and Mexican food. They learned Spanish, Mexican, and Indian history. Their political and economic systems were based on those of Spain. Their towns and cities had Spanish names: San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, El Paso, San Antonio. Most of the people living in this region were as much Spanish and Mexican as the people in Massachusetts and Virginia were once British.
Crucial to the history of the people of the Southwest – Mexican, Mexican-American, and Anglo-American – is the story of Texas. In 1822, with the permission of the Mexican government, Stephen F. Austin (for whom the state capital is named) began bringing American immigrants into Texas, which was a territory in the Mexican state of Coahuila. In return for being permitted to settle in Mexico, the colonists were required to become Mexican citizens, swear allegiance to Mexico, and agree to abide by Mexican law. Colonists were provided with cheap land and a promise by the Mexican government to exempt them from tariffs for a period of seven years.
Americans colonists began flooding into Texas, and it wasn’t long before American-Mexicans far outnumbered the Mexicans. For example, by the end of the 1820s, there were an estimated 25,000 American-Mexicans living in Texas, compared with an estimated 4,000 Spanish-speaking Mexicans.
Most of the Mexican people had settled in San Antonio de Béxar, which was situated 150 miles north of the Rio Grande and which had been established by the Spanish in 1718. Austin’s colonists settled in an area east and northeast of San Antonio.
Mexico’s Constitution of 1824 had guaranteed a decentralized, federal type of political system. That is, the nation would consist of individual states, each of which would have autonomy within its own region, similar to the type of political system that existed in the United States in the 19th century. The Mexican federal government would have little power over the affairs of the several states.
In 1834, Antonio López de Santa Anna assumed the presidency of Mexico. Endorsing the concept of a strong centralized government, Santa Anna discarded the Constitution of 1824 and, from Mexico City, the nation’s capital, began regulating the people in the various Mexican states, much as the U.S. government does today to the American people from Washington, D.C.
By this time, the seven-year grace period for tariff exemption for the American-Mexican colonists had expired. Santa Anna announced that customs stations were being established along the eastern border of Texas. He also sent Mexican troops to Texas to maintain order. Believing that American-Mexican immigrants, including American illegal aliens, were threatening Mexico with their foreign language and foreign culture, he closed the Texas territory to any further immigration by Anglo-Americans.
The American-Mexicans were outraged. They considered Santa Anna’s actions tyrannical, and petitioned the Mexican government for redress of grievances. But the petitioning process had never been part of the Mexican or Spanish political system, and the Mexican officials considered the petition to be an unlawful questioning of their authority. Santa Anna assumed the position of commander in chief and led the Mexican army north to quell the growing resistance to his rule.
There were approximately 180 men, including William Barrett Travis, David Crockett, and James Bowie, holed up at an old Spanish mission in San Antonio called the Alamo. Santa Anna’s forces numbered approximately 4,000. As the Mexican troops surrounded the Alamo, Santa Anna raised the “no quarter” flag, indicating that no man inside the Alamo would be taken prisoner.
Who were the patriots at the Alamo? Were the men who died defending the Alamo patriots? (All of them were killed.) Or were the Mexican soldiers who attacked the Alamo the patriots?
For that matter, when Stephen F. Austin assisted his own government – the Mexican government – to suppress an American-Mexican revolt at Fredonia, Texas, in 1826, was he a patriot or a traitor? Then, when Austin supported the Texas revolution in 1836, was he a patriot or a traitor?
For decades, I have heard American nationalists castigate and condemn Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the United States, saying: “They ought learn how to speak English. They don’t appreciate our history or our culture. Their loyalty is to Mexico rather than the United States. We need to close our borders to these people.” Ironically, however, I have never heard any of these nationalists castigate the American-Mexican immigrants living in Texas in 1836. Why don’t they condemn them for not learning the national language of their country – Spanish? Why don’t they condemn them for disobeying Mexican law and refusing to comply with Mexican customs, after expressly agreeing to do so?
(Of course, as a native Texan, I would strongly suggest that if anyone is tempted to render such a condemnation, he not do so inside the walls of the Alamo because he would be quickly hanged by the Daughters of the Texas Revolution!)
Could the reason for their failure to condemn be that they fully agree with the propriety of the actions taken by Antonio López de Santa Anna?
For example, the American-Mexicans were outraged over the imposition of tariffs by the Mexican government. But hadn’t they expressly agreed that they would be exempt from tariffs for only seven years and that after that time, the Mexican government could impose them?
The American-Mexicans were also angry over Santa Anna’s sending of troops to northern Mexico to maintain order. But didn’t the Mexican government have the legitimate authority to send troops anywhere in Mexico? Doesn’t the U.S. government today claim the power to send U.S. troops to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California?
The American-Mexicans were also upset that Santa Anna had prohibited any more Americans from immigrating to the Texas territory. But isn’t that what present-day advocates of U.S. immigration controls wish to do to Mexican immigrants – close the borders on them? How would Santa Anna’s closing of Mexico’s northern border differ, in principle, from the U.S. government’s closing of its southern border? How can a current-day proponent of immigration controls condemn Santa Anna for doing what he wants the United States government to do today?
Thus, we have a fascinating spectacle: modern-day American nationalists, including a small number of libertarians who openly and proudly favor tariffs and immigration controls, who would have been standing tall alongside of Santa Anna and saying to those American-Mexican immigrants, “You immigrated to Mexico voluntarily. You agreed to become citizens of this country. Learn Spanish, and stop speaking English. You owe your loyalty to your own country – Mexico. You’ve got to comply with your nation’s laws and customs. Mexico – love it or leave it!”
Were the Texas revolutionaries patriots or traitors? Well, weren’t they simply claiming that the government did not have the legitimate authority to tax its citizens, regulate their peaceful activity, close the borders to immigration, and have a standing army in their midst? Isn’t that what English colonists considered patriotism (and what English authorities considered treason) in 1776?
Were the Mexican soldiers who attacked the Alamo patriots or traitors? Well, weren’t they simply trying to keep their nation intact and protect it from the American-Mexicans who were attempting to secede? Wasn’t that the guiding principle of American Yankee patriotism 25 years later?
Yes, patriotism can be a very tricky business indeed. After all, who are the American patriots of today? Those who favor the imposition of tariffs and immigration controls? Or those who do not? Or those who simply declare, “My country, right or wrong”?
After the battle of the Alamo, Santa Anna’s forces were defeated by Sam Houston’s army at San Jacinto, Texas, and Santa Anna was captured. In return for his life’s being spared, Santa Anna personally agreed that Texas would be an independent nation, after which he was shipped back to Mexico in disgrace.
There was one big problem with this agreement, however: It was never ratified by the Mexican Congress. Mexico refused to recognize Texas as an independent nation and instead continued to claim the territory as its own. For years after the battle at San Jacinto, the Mexican government continued sending troops into Texas but would quickly withdraw them to avoid extended conflict with the Texans.
Aggravating matters was a decision by Texas to claim the Rio Grande as its southern boundary even though the southern boundary of the Texas territory had always been, going all the way back to the Spanish Empire, the Nueces River, which was about 125 miles north of the Rio Grande and which, more or less, paralleled the Rio Grande.
Thus, 10 years later – in 1846 – there were two matters in dispute. Was Texas truly an independent nation by virtue of a successful revolution and the agreement with Santa Anna? The Texans said yes, and the Mexicans said no. Second, if the Texans were right, was the new nation’s southern boundary (and, therefore, Mexico’s northern boundary) the Nueces River? Or was the boundary 125 miles south, along the Rio Grande, as the Texans now claimed?
These two questions were, of course, of crucial import to the people living in Mexico and in Texas.
But they were especially important to the people living in Texas who had been Mexican citizens all their lives, especially those who lived on the strip of land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces.
For example, my hometown of Laredo, which had been established by Capt. Tomás Sánchez in 1755, was located on the northern bank of the Rio Grande and, therefore, within the disputed strip. In 1840, four years after the battle at San Jacinto, the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, themselves disgusted with the dictatorial rule of the Mexican government, declared their independence from Mexico, and Laredo, despite being claimed by Texas, became the capital of the new Republic of the Rio Grande.
The Mexican government suppressed the revolt nine months later, but Laredoans chose to remain loyal to Mexico rather than Texas. Were they acting patriotically or not?
Issues involving political boundaries would ultimately be determined by the Mexican War in 1846 and by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. That war and that peace agreement would also make such things as family, language, history, and culture – as well as patriotism – along the southern border more complicated than ever.