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Saturday, January 28, 2023

After a tragic and beautiful history, a complicated US-Mexico relationship

As the US and Mexico celebrate 200 years of diplomatic relations, we look at the history of this complicated relationship

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Alvaro Amador Muniz
Alvaro Amador Muniz
Alvaro Amador Muniz describes himself as a Rednexican who hails from Ciudad Juárez, an adopted Tennessean, an amateur historian, and an average basketball player currently living in Costa Rica. He can be contacted at alvaroamadormu@gmail.com or via Twitter @AlvaroAmadorM.
This WWII propaganda poster was created in 1942 by Mexican cartoonist Antonio Arias Bernal.

I am often astounded by how much we refuse to admit that Mexico and the United States have always been intimately connected.

It is almost as if Americans have deliberately decided to ignore the connection between Mexican history and the modern United States, and Mexicans have a deep-rooted sense of distrust about anything related to our northern neighbors. We need to change that; Mexico is not only a country with beautiful beaches, pyramids, awesome food, and fiestas. Mexico is the United States’ biggest trade and security partner, a deep and complex nation intertwined with the US like no other. 

In the words of Anthony Bourdain, Mexico is our brother from another mother, a country with whom, like it or not, we (Americans) are inexorably, deeply involved in a close but often uncomfortable embrace.

Now, I am not trying to guilt trip you about not knowing Mexican history. Let’s blame it all on public education. If you went to public school in the States, you probably learned about the industrial revolution in England, World War I and II, the Cold War, the Irish famine, and many other world events, and that is great, but unless you attended school in a border state, you probably did not learn much about what happened south of the Rio Grande. So, I am bringing to you a Mexico-U.S. history crash course so we can start filling in the gaps.

United Mexican States

Yes, Mexico’s official name might have been inspired in part by the ideals of the American founding fathers. The Mexican constitution of 1824 established the official name of Mexico as The United Mexican States (Estados Unidos Mexicanos), a non-coincidental similarity with the name of the United States. When the United States became an independent nation in 1776, it inspired other countries in the hemisphere to decolonize as well. Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, and it first became a monarchy, a short-lived empire ending in 1823. Immediately after the overthrow of the Mexican emperor, Mexico became a democracy and found inspiration from the government model and the constitution created by its northern neighbors.

Adios Texas, hello Texas

Right after gaining its independence, Mexico welcomed groups of immigrants coming from the United States to Texas. Mexico was concerned about the vast unpopulated territories in the north and thought that the new immigrants would be a good protection barrier against possible invasion attempts (that did not go very well for Mexico). 

Once settled in Texas, the new immigrants disagreed with Mexican authorities about its anti-slavery laws and about the level of centralism in Mexico. In 1836, Texas seceded from Mexico, and in 1845, Texas was annexed to the United States.

Mexico loses the American West

Sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves that parts of Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Kansas were also part of Mexico. Had the outcome of the war between Mexico and the United States of 1846 been different, you would need a passport to go gambling in Vegas. Once Texas was admitted into the Union, the United States and Mexico started a territorial dispute over the Texas-Mexico border. The United States sent American forces to patrol the disputed territories, and the Mexican army took this action as an incursion on their sovereign territory.

The US government considered the combat losses an act of war, and these events triggered the US-Mexican War (the North American invasion, as it is known in Mexico). Mexico lost the war and 55% of its territory in 1848.

Cinco de Mayo! Mexico prevents France from intervening in the U.S. Civil War

In 1862, Mexico defeated the French army and kept them away from interfering in the US Civil War. That is why Americans absolutely should drink some tequila shots, eat some tacos, and grab a sombrero to celebrate Cinco de Mayo!

During its first years as an independent nation, Mexico accrued foreign debt, and in 1861 Mexico declared a moratorium on its payments to France, a heavy lender to Mexico’s growth. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte used this as an excuse to expand his empire into the Americas and decided to invade Mexico. In those years, the French textile industry depended heavily on the cotton produced by the southern plantations of the United States, and because of that, it was in their interest to support the Confederacy. 

Mexico, in the midst of bankruptcy and with a poorly armed military, still managed to put up a good fight and prevented the French incursion, which would have provided supplies and support to the Confederacy had they been successful. 

After the battle of Cinco de Mayo (May 5, 1862), the French came back and established Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico. Within a few years, and thanks to the support of President Abraham Lincoln to secure U.S. funds for Mexico’s military resistance, the Mexican Army pushed the French out and executed Maximilian in 1867.

The US arms the rebels during the Mexican Revolution

Dictator Porfirio Diaz once said, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” Mexico had been governed by Diaz for 35 consecutive years, and inequality was becoming more severe, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Francisco Madero organized the rebels, bought arms in Texas, and managed to defeat Diaz’s army in Ciudad Juarez. Diaz fled to Paris where he received asylum but left behind a vacuum of power that changed hands multiple times as the rebels fought each other for control. In 1913, Madero was assassinated in Mexico City, and in 1914, the United States bombarded the city of Veracruz in support of one of the many strongmen of the revolution. In 1916, Pancho Villa felt that the U.S. government was supporting his enemies, and in retaliation, he invaded Columbus, New Mexico. After the invasion of Columbus, the U.S. conducted a punitive raid that failed to find Villa.

Mexico says nein to recovering Texas

Only three years after the U.S. bombarded Veracruz, Mexico decided to side with the United States during WWI. In 1917, in the midst of World War I, British intelligence intercepted a telegraph sent by the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government, in which he proposed a Mexico-Germany alliance that would help Mexico recover the territories lost to the United States. The Germans were hoping to convince Mexico to start a war with the United States that would “distract” the Americans. The United States acted quickly and offered diplomatic incentives to Mexico to ensure its neutrality during World War I.

Mexico sends its air force to fight the Axis forces in the Philippines during WWII

In 1942 Germany warned Mexico to stop oil exports to the United States. Mexico ignored the warning, and a German submarine sunk two Mexican oil tankers, one of them on the coast of Florida. Following this event, Mexico declared war on the Axis powers, and with the assistance of the United States, Mexico trained 300 members of the Mexican Air Force who fought in the Philippines and Japan. Mexico was one of the only two Latin American countries that sent troops to fight during WWII — the other one was Brazil.

Braceros, Mexican Manpower saves the U.S. Agricultural Industry during World War II

Mexican farm workers line up as they are registered to work in the United States through the Bracero program, part of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, in 1951. Photo: PhotoQuest / Getty Images

My grandfather was a bracero. He would go work in the fields of Louisiana and Texas, and he would come back to Chihuahua, Mexico, with a suitcase full of brand-new Levi’s. Mexico did more than help on the battlefield during WWII. In 1942, the United States and Mexico signed a series of diplomatic agreements to allow millions of Mexican men to temporarily work in the United States. The intention of these short-term contracts was to address an agricultural labor shortage caused by the war. While the American men were fighting, Mexican workers were keeping food on the tables.

Present and into the future

The snippets of history provided above show how over time, the U.S.-Mexico relationship has grown closer, like brothers who eventually grow out of beating each other up and support each other through thick and thin. We have had a rough ride, but today we are commercial partners, security allies, friends, and even culturally similar. 

Millions of Mexicans live in the United States, but also Mexico is the world’s largest recipient of US expats. Americans love guacamole and Cinco de Mayo as much as Mexicans love jeans and football.

Our common history may be tragic, painful, beautiful, and uncomfortable, but it is also undeniable. Our countries have a symbiotic connection and, like it or not, will need to rely on each other as family for years to come.

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