In the 4th century, B.C., the Senones, a mighty tribe from Gaul occupying northern Italy marched toward present-day Rome and conquered its neighbors to the south.
As the price for getting their freedom and land back, chieftain Brennus, the Senone leader, demanded one thousand pounds of gold. Disorganized; distressed, the vanquished people reluctantly agreed to the exorbitant tribute.
Still, when delivering the initial installment, southern tribe envoys complained that the scales used by the Senones looked suspicious. Brennus then quickly settled their concern. He is said to have thrown his heavy sword onto the scales, stating “Vae victis” (Woe to the conquered). That is, there was no other choice for the defeated Romans but to pay the price!
For the record, Marcus Furius Camillus soon reorganized the remnants of the Roman Army and soundly defeated the Gauls. It is said that Camillus threw his own heavy sword on the scales, proclaiming “Non auro, sed ferro, recuperanda est patria” (Not by gold, but by iron will the fatherland be regained). More importantly, this rebooting of Rome’s Army gave root to the mighty Roman Empire, whose impact in a number of fields is still felt to this day.
In 1845, the U.S. admitted Texas as a slave state in spite of it being a province of Mexico. The bullying act was typical for pro-slavery and Manifest Destiny disciple, President James K. Polk, whose campaign promised to annex Texas. The provocation was designed to draw Mexico into a military confrontation the U.S. was sure to win. At stake? U.S. leaders coveted their neighbor Mexico’s land (today’s entire Southwest).
Outgunned and fully aware of its underdog role, the noble nation of Mexico responded by declaring war on the U.S. Their valiant response wasn’t enough. Two years later, the war ended badly for Mexico, even though the nation’s gallantry to protect its sovereignty is one of history’s best examples of altruism, embodied by the bravery of the Niños Heroes at Chapultepec Castle. Sadly, theirs is a heroic story not well known outside of Mexico. However, in contrast to the Romans, no brave Camillus arose to lead a counter-attack to avenge the death of the Niños Heroes or reclaim Mexico’s lost territory.
As the Romans dealing with Brennus, vanquished Mexico was at the mercy of President Polk. The Mexican envoys objected to the conditions to end the war (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo). In response to their protest, President Polk symbolically threw his version of a heavy sword onto the negotiations table by issuing an ultimatum. Unless Mexico signed the document, the U.S. would carry out an “All of Mexico” offensive plan that U.S. war hawks had long supported.
President Polk’s imperious message was blunt, absolute, and final. Mexico had no other choice, but to pay the price! The result? Mexico’s loss in blood and treasure was massive; greatly exceeding the capability of a set of scales.
In U.S.-Mexico relations, this initial assault to Mexico’s national identity set the standard for today’s one-sided U.S. foreign policy. Even now, undignified U.S. political arena rhetoric toward Mexico and the Mexican people continues. Likewise, Spanish-speaking Mexican-descent and Native American citizens on this side of the border still suffer from the sharp edge of U.S. Anglo-Saxon colonial-style rule.
The contrast between the invasions of Brennus and President Polk’s is that the U.S. wanted more than gold. The U.S. sought living space. Not only did the U.S. take Texas, but also (l) moved its southern border from the Nueces River to the Rio Grande, adding to Texas a large piece of the State of Tamaulipas (now South Texas); (2) the northern part of the State of Coahuila; (3) Nuevo México (New, Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and parts of Utah and Nevada); and (4) Alta California. It must be noted that, notwithstanding the lengthy U.S. campaign to exterminate Native American families from Florida to the Northwest, this extensive land acquisition was the only time the U.S. used military conquest to enlarge its mainland empire.
In seizing Alta California, Mexico’s most western province, President Polk extracted from Mexico many times over the thousand pounds of gold that Brennus sought from Rome. Curiously, gold in California was discovered at a time when it still belonged to Mexico and before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. That explains why the U.S. was so adamant in spreading its reach from “sea to shining sea”; enriching itself with ample gold deposits at the expense of its neighbor sister republic of Mexico, the legitimate owner of the land.
In short, Mexico paid dearly for the forcible U.S. colonization of its territory. In terms of losses by sovereign countries, only one other nation of brown-skin people paid more. During what can only be described as a cruel one-two punch in 1894-98, the Kingdom of Hawaii lost all its land to the U.S.
Previously in 1819, the U.S. had agreed to limit its southwestern expansion by signing the Adams-Onís Treaty with Spain. When approved in 1821, the U.S. received Florida, vowed to stay east of the Mississippi River, abandon its claim to Texas, and promised to respect New Spain (Mexico) borders. Regrettably, as with so many other treaties with Native American tribes, the U.S. ignored the Adams-Onís treaty.
It’s quite possible then, that history would’ve developed much differently if the U.S. had kept its non-aggression pledge. That is, had the U.S. not invaded Mexico, the novice nation would’ve continued to develop its fertile northern provinces, including abundant gold and natural resources. (Note: after its independence (1821-24), Mexico had emulated the U.S. by naming itself “Estados Unidos Mexicanos”. Tragically, over half its land was now being consumed by the craving appetite of its mentor, the “Colossus of the North”.)
In reality, the Mexican people (the mighty Mexica) had beforehand proven themselves experts at developing powerful, massive empires. The first was Aztlán, their mythical homeland thought to have been located in northern Mexico (U.S. Southwest). It is Aztlán that Mexica codices describe as their origins. In one of the more popular versions of their saga, the Mexica were forced to leave Aztlán and went searching for a new homeland. Their god Huitzilopochtli told them to look for an eagle eating a snake atop a prickly pear cactus. It is in the Valley of Mexico where they observed such a sign and it is there where they made their new home. Thus, Tenochtitlán was their second kingdom.
Another intriguing legend after the 1521 fall of Tenochtitlán describes a group of Mexica nobles who left their capital city and travelled north seeking ancient Aztlán. However, it’s believed that if such a group did make the journey, they may have assimilated with any of several indigenous groups they met on the way when reaching what is now Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. It’s a tantalizing tale, but nevertheless, one that may be based on truth.
In summary, President Polk’s leading the war with Mexico brings to mind Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony: “The evil that men do lives after them”. The second part of the quote aptly fits Mexico’s brave stand defending itself against great odds: “The good that men do is oft interred with their bones”.
Given the chance, Mexico would have made its northern lands flourish just as the U.S. did later. Who knows, maybe create another magnificent Aztlán or Tenochtitlán. After all, building big is in their DNA. Alas, in 1848, Mexica descendants did not witness an omen of good versus evil in its future (a Mexican golden eagle eating a snake atop a prickly pear cactus). Instead, the U.S. seized Mexico’s northern provinces trophy for itself. “Vae victis”. Woe to the Conquered!
Editor’s Note: The main photo accompanying this column shows the Niños Heroes Memorial, in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City. Dedicated to six brave Mexican teenage cadets who sacrificed their lives defending their country against invading U.S. military forces. Young Juan Escutia wrapped himself in the Mexican Flag and jumped from the top of Chapultepec Castle to keep the flag from being captured by invading U.S. troops. The names of the heroes and their ages: Juan de la Barrera, 19, Juan Escutia, 15, Francisco Márquez, 13, Agustín Melgar, Fernando Montes de Oca, 15, and Vicente Suárez, 14.