By Robert Scott
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Is there a crisis at the U.S. southern border, the border with Mexico? Thousands of refugees, whether fleeing crime-ridden Central American countries or just seeking a better life for themselves and their families, are currently streaming across the border. The history of that particular border is something that I suspect Mexicans understand better than do Americans. It is always worthwhile to study history; to see where we are going it is often invaluable to start with where we have been.
Texas, of course, once was part of Mexico. In the 1830’s Mexico had banned slavery but many settlers from American slave states moved to that part of Mexico, with the idea of planting cotton and bring their slaves with them. In today’s parlance, Mexico viewed many of these immigrants as “illegal aliens,” and sought either to bring them under Mexican law (including freeing their slaves) or expelling them back across what was then the border, back to Louisiana and states further north and east. The American Texans fought for independence from Mexico, with the siege of the Alamo in 1836 bringing in more Americans and resulting in the independent Republic of Texas, whose own border with Mexico became disputed. In a continuing struggle to establish the Rio Grande as the border, the Republic of Texas called for help from the American government. The result was the Mexican War, resulting in the United States winning not only Texas but also New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and parts of other states. With only minor modifications, the border between Mexico and the United States was established in 1845, both sides of which had of course been part of Mexico until that war. Some 80,000 Mexicans living north of that border became U. S. citizens, the first “Mexican Americans” of any number. They didn’t immigrate here; they were already there when their homes became part of the United States, and many had (and still have) families on both sides of the new border.
Mexico was weakened by the loss of so much territory, and several European powers, especially France, took advantage of that weakness as well as the United States’ preoccupation with the Civil War to attempt to re-colonialize Mexico itself. The Mexican people, though, fought as steadfastly to maintain their independence as had Americans almost 100 years earlier. The May 5th holiday – Cinco do Mayo, in Spanish – commemorates a Mexican victory against invading French forces at the Battle of Puebla, in 1862. Despite winning that battle, Mexico essentially lost the war; and France established a puppet government headed by the Emperor Maximilian that lasted only a few years. Mexican forces overthrew the Emperor and restored their independent republic in 1867.
When you celebrate Cinco de Mayo this year, be thinking about May 5th, 1862, and the Mexican forces who had families on both the Mexican and American side of the border, a border which at the time was only 17 years old. Immigration in both directions – Americans into what had been Mexico, and Mexicans into lands their compatriots had been living in for generations – has always been with us. The addition of Central American refugees adds another wrinkle to the history of that border, a history that is still being written today. As with so many things in life, at the border with Mexico change itself is the only constant. This week, we should all remember the history of Cinco de Mayo and Mexico’s continuing struggle to maintain its independence.