One warm South Texas day before returning to frigid Minnesota.
We started out for South Padre Island, but along the way I convinced my partner to detour to the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Park outside of Brownsville, Texas.
”My Valentines Day present,” I suggested, clinching the deal.
The park exhibit, the website said, tells of this first battle of the U. S. Mexican War from both U.S. and Mexican perspectives. I was intrigued, excited even, to see an exhibit that promised to complicate the patriotic pablum of most military sites.
We checked in at the visitor center and began the guided walking tour, into the arena where the first battle of the 1846-48 war took place. Panels provided blow by blow accounts. Several of the superior U.S. cannons that splattered Mexican bodies across the plain, were positioned here and there.
We learned that Mexican cannons could only hit one target and they missed more often than hit. As a result Mexican casualties and wounded were ten times those of U.S. soldiers.
As promised, both sides of the battle experience were told, using primary source quotes. However, the letters of U.S. and Mexican soldiers and politicians, interesting as they were, provided us with only scraps of truth. The exhibit left us without an understanding of the causes and legacy of the war for diverse sectors of society on either side. Missing from the story:
Slavery. Nothing about the Anglo cotton planters who sought Texas independence in 1836, and desired annexation in 1846 to expand their slave holdings. Nothing about the people forced to work on their plantations. The U.S. Mexico War is African American history.
Apaches, Yaquis, Navahos, who fought both Mexican and U.S. soldiers who had invaded their territories. The U.S. Mexico War is Native American history.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The peace treaty promised to protect property, language and cultural integrity of the new Mexican Americans. The U.S Mexican War is Chicana/o History. Every time a community imposes English-only legislation the Treaty of Guadalupe is re-broken.
The Park’s fifteen minute video, included one important contextual note. U.S. President Polk faced public opposition to war. He amassed troops at Corpus Christie to provoke a Mexican “invasion” across the disputed border and quell public protest. Polk’s trick has been used repeatedly by Presidents facing publics hesitant to go to war.
As presidential candidates in 2016 compete for who will build the biggest wall, we are reminded that it is the border itself, and those — beginning 170 years ago — who shed the blood of others to impose it, who are criminal.
The exhibit map (above), illustrates the geographic result of the war. It did not, however, encourage us to contemplate the worth of the transferred territory. The resources, agricultural and mineral, of the southwest, have, for over a century, been transformed into agribusiness and mining profits by people crossing the border to work. The United States is enriched, Mexico impoverished and the people creating the wealth are criminalized.
The Palo Alto Battlefield National Park is lovely. It preserves more than the memory of battle. Today it is a refuge for beleaguered wildlife pushed toward extinction by encroaching developments on both side of the border. We absorbed the quiet, the sun, small pink desert flowers. We didn’t see an antelope, jack rabbit, horned lizard or a javelina, but a diamondback rattle snake slipped into the grass as we approached. In the parking lot we watched an Altimira Oriole; its yellow feathers dazzling our color-starved souls.
“Better than a crowded beach.” I said.
My partner looked almost convinced.