Three Amigos, Some Mezcal, and Mexico City (Part 2)
In 1847 the United States invaded and took over Mexico City and the Mexican government. Wait, what?! Yep, we did. President James Polk was wanting to expand our Southern border. The border at that time was well north of the Rio Grande in Texas, up to Santa Fe in New Mexico, and up to Los Angeles in the far west. Polk wanted the border pushed south to the Rio Grande so he tried diplomacy and a healthy dose of money. Mexico said no thanks. So when that didn’t work he resorted to moving the border the old fashioned way – invasion.
The U.S. Navy steamed down the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico, carrying the U.S. forces that ultimately landed to the west and east of Mexico City. After a couple of battles the U.S. forces were within 5 miles of Mexico City. On September 12, 1847 the Battle for Mexico City commenced with a heavy artillery bombardment. Several Americans were involved that would later become prominent in U.S. political and military history: Ulysses S. Grant (future Union general and President), James Longstreet (confederate general), and George Pickett (of Pickett’s charge fame) just to name a few. The U.S. advanced despite passionate resistance from the Mexicans. Eventually they made it to Chapultepec Castle, a structure rich in Mexican history and the home of many of its presidents, governors, and viceroys – both Mexican and European. (Tip: When you go to the link be sure to click on the Museo icon on the top left for an incredible aerial video of the castle.) The Castle is located at the top of a hill and is an imposing site, as well as a source of pride for Mexican citizens. In 1847 it was a military academy for teenage cadets. The Mexican general Nicolas Bravo commanded the cadets on that fateful day, September 13, 1847, as the Americans approached. They fought for two hours before the general ordered a retreat. Not all of the cadets heeded his order.
Los Ninos Heroes
The exact account of what happened there on that day is a bit murky, including the number of cadets that refused to retreat. But we do know that 6 cadets (the Los Ninos Hereos or “boy heroes”) are forever memorialized for giving their lives on that hill that day. Stories abound as to how they met their fates. One is of young Juan Escutia, who at no more than 19 years old allegedly wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and dove off the top of the castle to his death to prevent the U.S. from taking it. The heroism shown was such a source of national pride that September 13 is still a national holiday in Mexico. The monument honoring the Los Ninos Heroes is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, with 6 marbled pillars rising into the sky at the foot of the hill below Chapultepec Castle. The castle is now a museum of Mexican history and is a must-see when you go to Mexico City. The surrounding views of Mexico City are stunning.
Plaza de la Constitucion (Zocalo)
After taking over the city, General Winfield Scott led the U.S. forces into the main square and central hub of Mexican political leadership, the Plaza de la Constitucion, or more commonly known simply as the Zocalo. It is here in 1847 that the Mexicans officially surrendered. And then the negotiating began again. This time the Mexicans were a bit more receptive to President Polk’s offers and a deal was struck that eventually led to the U.S.-Mexican border being where it is today. (Photo of General Scott marching into Zocalo)
The Zocalo is “old Mexico” and it wreaks of history and importance. It is built on and near the Templo Mayor, an archeological site dating back hundreds (and possibly thousands) of years to a group of people known as the “Mexica”. This was the main area of their capital Tenochtitlan. So the very beginnings of Mexican political history has had its roots in this area for eons. You will want to walk around the Zocalo and also visit the nearby ruins at the Templo Mayor museum.
Life and Death
Religion surrounds you at every turn in Mexico City and the streets in and around the Zocalo are no different. In addition to this being a central hub of political history for Mexico, you can feel the deep respect for the spiritual world as well. The Templo Mayor was not necessarily a pleasant place. Human sacrifices of blood, and sometimes death, to the gods were a common occurrence and an accepted part of the culture. Life and death are two sides of the same coin. A coin that each person carries at all times.
Churches are everywhere, they are open, and they are well attended. Catholocism reigns supreme by a wide margin. Although the Church is not keen on the practice, many people celebrate (not necessarily worship) Santa Muerta, “our lady of the Holy Death.” Her actual purpose, helping people get to the afterlife after death, seems less intimidating than her appearance in this life.
As you walk around the streets surrounding the Zocalo you will want to wander into some of the churches there. They are ornate, detailed, and beautiful. They certainly rival some of the basilicas we encountered in Italy. Tip: If you are going to take pictures be sure that they are not having mass. That’s a big no-no.
There are many street vendors and stores that open out onto the sidewalk. You can buy anything and everything. We noticed police every couple of blocks and in general felt safe during our walks in this area. Street art is everywhere as well, with the wall below being one of my favorites.