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Remembering the United States intervention

Except for the Bear Flag Revolt, the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 isn’t much remembered or talked about north of the border. The war is commemorated by no holidays and I know of no major monuments to it. In fact, it is so far removed from our collective memory that I had never even heard about it before my 11th grade American Studies class.

South of the border, it is another story. Even if the events of the United States Intervention (as the war is called in Mexico) are often confused in popular memory with the French Intervention of the 1860s, everybody knows about how the Yankees invaded Mexico and annexed the northern part of the country to the United States. Probably every city in the republic has a street named after the Ninos Héroes (“Boy Heroes,” explained below).

The Mexican-American War was started by President James K. Polk, an expansionist southerner who was obsessed with the idea of getting control of California. When diplomatic channels failed to yield a Mexican cession of California and New Mexico, Polk sent General Zachary Taylor into disputed territory between Texas and Mexico to pick a fight with Mexico. Once the war was on, American forces invaded and occupied northern Mexico, but the Mexican government did not capitulate as Polk hoped. So Polk sent General Winfield Scott to invade the Mexican heartland at the port of Veracruz. After taking Veracruz, Scott’s forces fought their way up into the central Mexican highlands to Mexico City. With the defeat of forces defending the capital city, the Mexican government capitulated and signed away its claims to California and New Mexico.

Now, 171 years after the end of the war, Mexico City is still thick with monuments and memory of the United States Intervention. On a trip to Mexico City in June, I went in search of sites and memorials of the war, in an attempt to better understand the conflict itself and how it has been remembered in the years since. Not surprisingly, there is no heritage trail, so I had to piece together my own from what I already knew about the war. Here is what I found.

The Pedregal

Mexico City is located in the Valley of Mexico, surrounded by hills and mountains on all sides. General Scott’s forces entered the Valley of Mexico on August 7, 1847 through a 10,000-ft-high pass in the south. Mexico City is now a giant metropolis that sprawls across the valley, but it was much smaller then. Between the pass and the city, one contingent of US forces (led by a certain Captain Robert E. Lee) advanced on the city across a wasteland of lava flows know as El Pedregal (The Rocky Ground).

The Pedregal remained a useless wasteland for a hundred years after the Mexican-American War, when the area was developed as a posh housing development known as Jardínes de Pedregal. Most of the Pedregal is thus locked away in private land, but some of it is taken up by Mexico’s premier university, UNAM. Surviving lava flows in the campus have been incorporated into the landscaping, allowing one to get a sense of the kind of terrain that the American invaders crossed on their way to Mexico City.

Your blogger sitting on a surviving piece of the Pedregal on the UNAM campus. (Photo by Verónica Trinidad Gallegos.)

Your blogger sitting on a surviving piece of the Pedregal on the UNAM campus. (Photo by Verónica Trinidad Gallegos.)

Monument to the Sanpatricios

Not far from UNAM is San Ángel, a colonial city that has been engulfed in Mexico City’s urban sprawl. Some parts of San Ángel retain their colonial character, and one such place is San Jacinto Plaza. The plaza features a monument to one of the more interesting participants in the war, John Riley.

John Riley was an immigrant to the United States from Ireland by way of Canada. Just before the war started in 1846, while serving as a sergeant in the US Army, Riley deserted to Mexico. He would go on to lead the Batallón de San Patricio (St. Patrick’s Battalion), composed largely of other Irish-Catholic deserters fighting against the Americans. The Sanpatricios were defeated at the Battle of Churubusco outside of Mexico City, and many of the deserters were executed in a mass hanging. Riley himself escaped this fate because he had deserted before the outbreak of war, but he was branded with the letter D on his cheek (for deserter).

(Aside: Churubusco is a Mexican-American War site that I missed. The historic battlefield is now home to a museum about interventions in Mexico by the Americans, French, and other foreign powers in the nineteenth century.)

The Sanpatricios were widely reviled in the US Army, particularly by loyal Irish-Americans. Later in the nineteenth century, the War Department refused to acknowledge that they had even existed. But they are remembered fondly in Mexico and Ireland. On opposite sides of the street at San Jacinto Plaza are a commemorative plaque placed in 1959 and a bust of Comandante Riley dedicated in 2010 by the Irish ambassador. (He is also the subject of a mediocre TV movie, One Man’s Hero.)

Monument to Comandante John Riley of the Sanpatricios, erected in 2010.

Monument to Comandante John Riley of the Sanpatricios, erected in 2010.

Plaque honoring the Sanpatricios in San Ángel, placed in 1959.

Plaque honoring the Sanpatricios in San Ángel, placed in 1959.

Molino del Rey

The final thrust into Mexico City began on September 8, 1847 with the Battle of Molino del Rey. The Americans had received intelligence that the Mexicans were recasting church bells at Molino del Rey, a mill outside the city. A force sent to stop this arms production defeated the Mexican defenders, but with heavy casualties. (It turned out that the intelligence had been faulty, and no cannons were being made there.)

The old mill building known as Molino del Rey still stands on the edge of Bosque Chapultepec, the central park of Mexico City. Until last December, Molino del Rey was locked away from the public in the compound of Los Pinos, the official residence of the President of Mexico. But then the newly-inaugurated president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, opened Los Pinos to the public. Molino del Rey was made accessible as well. The general public can’t go inside, because the building is used by the Mexican military, but you can get a good enough view of it from outside.

View of the front side of Molino del Rey. In the foreground is a restored sixteenth-century aqueduct.

View of the front side of Molino del Rey. In the foreground is a restored sixteenth-century aqueduct.

Backside of Molino del Rey.

Backside of Molino del Rey.

Monument to the battle of Molino del Rey, erected 1856 and restored 2014.

Monument to the battle of Molino del Rey, erected 1856 and restored 2014.

Castillo de Chapultepec

The last great battle of the Mexico City campaign took place at Chapultepec Castle, perched on a hilltop not far from Molino del Rey. The castle had been a residence of the Spanish viceroy, and it 1847 it was being used by the Military Academy of Mexico. On September 13, 1847, the American attackers bombarded the castle before using scaling-ladders to reach the summit of the hill. Famously, six teenaged cadets died defending the castle alongside the regular troops. They became known as the Niños Héroes (Boy Heroes), who are commemorated across the country.

Chapultepec Castle is now a terrific history museum, tracing the story of Mexico from Aztec times through about 1920 with the end of the Mexican Revolution. The museum has an excellent collection of artifacts that are attractively displayed. One room of the museum is devoted to the Mexican-American War, complete with a shrine to the Niños Héroes.

Facade of Chapultepec Castle.

Facade of Chapultepec Castle.

This painting on the ceiling of the main hall in Chapultepec Castle portrays Juan Escutia, one of the Niños Héroes, falling to his death with the national flag wrapped around him. Painted by Gabriel Flores.

This painting on the ceiling of the main hall in Chapultepec Castle portrays Juan Escutia, one of the Niños Héroes, falling to his death with the national flag wrapped around him. Painted by Gabriel Flores.

At the foot of the hill below the castle are two monuments to the Niños Héroes, a modest one dedicated in 1881 and a much bigger one at the entrance to the park, which was completed in 1952.

Old Niños Héroes memorial, erected 1881.

Old Niños Héroes memorial, erected 1881. US President Harry S. Truman placed a wreath at this monument in 1947.

Newer Niños Héroes monument, dedicated in 1952.

Newer Niños Héroes monument, dedicated in 1952.

The Zócalo

With the fall of Chapultepec, the way to Mexico City lay open. Not wanting the battle for the city to devolve into house-by-house fighting and looting, General Scott diverted his troops to the town of Guadalupe Hidalgo to the north. There the Americans set up their headquarters and waited for the Mexican government to surrender, which it did. The Mexican government decamped to the city of Querétaro, and on the morning of September 14, General Scott’s troops paraded in triumph into the Zócalo, the central square of the city. Marines took control of the National Palace and raised the US flag over it (referenced as the “Halls of Montezuma” in the Marine Corps Hymn).

A famous illustration by Carl Nebel depicts Scott’s forces parading on the Zócalo, with the Metropolitan Cathedral and National Palace in the background. The Zócalo looks much the same now as it did in 1847, at least from Nebel’s viewpoint. But with today’s crowds of tourists and noisy automobile traffic, it is hard to imagine the defeated, humiliated city that General Scott and his forces entered.

Illustration by Carl Nebel of American troops parading in the Zócalo.

Illustration by Carl Nebel of American troops parading in the Zócalo. (Source: Wikipedia, public domain.)

Your blogger standing on just about the spot where the white horse is located in Nebel's illustration.

Your blogger standing on just about the spot where the white horse is located in Nebel’s illustration. (Photo by Verónica Trinidad Gallegos.)

Guadalupe Hidalgo (now Villa de Guadalupe)

The US military would occupy Mexico City for eight months, the first time that American forces ever occupied an enemy capital. The official end of the conflict came with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed by the Mexican government and American occupiers on February 2, 1848. As part of the treaty, Mexico signed away its claim to the northern 42% of its territory, including California and New Mexico. The bitter defeat would lead to a brutal internal war in Mexico a decade later, the War of the Reform. In the United States, the glut of new territory exacerbated tensions over the question of slavery; these tensions would also lead to a devastating war, the American Civil War of 1861-65.

Guadalupe Hidalgo is now known as Villa de Guadalupe. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in the old Basilica of Guadalupe, built in 1709. Although replaced by a grand modernist building in 1976, the Old Basilica—renovated and now hopefully earthquake-safe—still stands in Villa de Guadalupe.

Your blogger in front of the old Basilica of Guadalupe (on the left with the yellow roof). (Photo by Verónica Trinidad Gallegos.)

Your blogger in front of the old Basilica of Guadalupe (on the left with the yellow roof). (Photo by Verónica Trinidad Gallegos.)

Old and new Basilicas of Guadalupe, viewed from Cerro Tepeyac.

Old and new Basilicas of Guadalupe, viewed from Cerro Tepeyac.

Sonoma Barracks (L) and Mission.

Remembering the Bear Flag

California state flag.

California state flag. (Source: http://www.library.ca.gov/california-history/state-symbols/, public domain.)

SONOMA, California, USA – The state flag of California, which flies over public buildings, schools, and some businesses and private homes—and not to mention baseball caps, t-shirts, and a huge variety of tourist kitsch—is a white banner featuring a grizzly bear on all fours, a red star, a red band, and the words “CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC.” California is a state, not an independent republic, so why does it say that?

California is indeed not an independent republic, and never really was, but in June 1846, rebellious Anglo-American settlers in Sonoma kidnapped the local Mexican official, General Vallejo, and raised the original Bear Flag in front of the barracks of this Mexican territorial outpost. The next month, the Bear Flag would be replaced by the Stars and Stripes, and the US annexation of Alta (Upper) California would be made official with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. California became a state just two years later, and the state flag design was adopted in 1911, using elements of the original Bear Flag but arranging them much more attractively. (It was remarked at the time that the original “bear” actually looked like a pig).

Replica of the original Bear Flag in the Sonoma Barracks. (The original flag was, like so much else, destroyed in the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.)

Replica of the original Bear Flag in the Sonoma Barracks. (The original flag was, like so much else, destroyed in the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.)

This Sunday, Sonoma held its annual Bear Flag Celebration, timed to be near the anniversary of the raising in 1846. I headed over to investigate, as I have been wondering how the Bear Flag Revolt is commemorated in twenty-first-century California. It was a land-grab by Anglo settlers who thought they deserved to control California more than any Mexicans, but looking at it this way, it would be difficult to celebrate the event in a county and state with a significant Hispanic minority (27% for Sonoma County and 39% for California as a whole). So how is the revolt remembered?

The museum at the Sonoma Barracks hasn’t been of much help in my attempt to understand memory of the Bear Flag Revolt. The barracks were restored by the state of California in 1976-1980, and the museum displays appear not to have been updated since then. The introductory panel presents “Manifest Destiny” as a fact rather than a contested idea.

Having made several visits to the historic buildings in Sonoma, without gaining any insight into memory of the revolt, I thought I might have better luck at the Bear Flag Ceremony that kicked off the day’s festivities on Sunday.

Front cover of the program for the 2019 Bear Flag Celebration.

Front cover of the program for the 2019 Bear Flag Celebration.

The ceremony was held in front of the vaguely socialist-realist Bear Flag Monument on the Sonoma Plaza opposite the barracks. Native Sons of the Golden West, a fraternal service organization founded in 1875, organized the event. (This is native as in “native-born,” not “Native American.” Judging from the event on Sunday, the membership of the organization seems to be largely but not exclusively Anglo.)

Scene from the Bear Flag Ceremony.

Scene from the Bear Flag Ceremony.

Detail of the Bear Flag Monument.

Detail of the Bear Flag Monument.

At first, the ceremony didn’t offer me much insight. There were a few reference to the “heroes” of the Bear Flag Revolt, without any explanation about what made them heroic. And there was plenty of generic patriotism (recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and singing of the “Star-spangled Banner”).

A lineup of historic flags in at the Bear Flag Ceremony. States of the United States that were once ruled by either Mexico or France really like to commemorate this fact.

A lineup of historic flags in at the Bear Flag Ceremony. States of the United States that were once ruled by either Mexico or France really like to commemorate this fact.

Things really got interesting with a speech by Dave Allen, Past Grand President of the NSGW and Chairman of the Historical Preservation Foundation. He explained how interpretations of historical facts can and often do change. “A situation that was generally accepted as fact can be reinterpreted by later historians as having an entirely different conclusion,” he said. As an example, he explained that the snow encountered by the Donner Party in 1846-47 was long presumed to be 22 feet deep, and for this reason the Pioneer Monument in Truckee has a base 22 feet high. But more recent research has shown that the snow was in fact 13 feet deep. PGP Allen spoke only about details like this, but I got the impression that he meant that broader interpretations could be changed as well—such as whether the participants in the Bear Flag Revolt were heroes or not.

Later in the program, Sonoma Mayor Amy Harrington remarked that the Bear Flag Revolt proves that a small group of people can make a big difference. (I suppose it helps if said people have the support of an imperialistic power nearby.) The NSGW gave Mayor Harrington a new state flag, which a color guard raised up a flagpole marking the approximate location where the original Bear Flag was flown. As the new flag was nearing the top of the flagpole, somebody behind me in the audience shouted, “Hip hip hooray!” and others nearby chuckled.

Lowering last year’s state flag on an overly-literal telephone pole that is supposed to mark the site of the original Bear Flag’s raising.

Lowering last year’s state flag on an overly-literal telephone pole that is supposed to mark the site of the original Bear Flag’s raising.

The ceremony concluded with a group singing of the state song, “I Love You California.” Although the words were printed on the back of the program, most people in the audience (your blogger included) didn’t know the tune and couldn’t sing along.

Later in the day, a planned reenactment of the Bear Flag Revolt failed to materialize, so I headed home. Although I would have liked to have seen a reenactment, I had gotten plenty of insight already. I had wondered if the interpretation and memory of the Bear Flag Revolt was constrained by the state or the Native Sons of the Golden West—as, for example, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas guards the historical interpretation of the Alamo. But it seems that this is not the case. NSGW Past Grand President Dave Allen is right: interpretation of the past can and does change. I find it heartening to know that the state of California and the Native Sons of the Golden West are open to new interpretations.

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Medieval San Francisco

In my first quarter teaching at Pacific Union College in Napa County, California, I got assigned an upper-division class about medieval Europe. PUC is close to a wide range of educational resources, as it is located within striking distance of San Francisco, Sacramento, the Pacific Coast, and the Sierra Nevadas. Had I been teaching California history, I might have considered taking my class to Mission Dolores in San Francisco, or perhaps the barracks at Sonoma. But when I was planning my class about the Middle Ages, it never crossed my mind that there might in fact be resources related to medieval Europe in the area as well.

Then, once the quarter was well underway, I discovered that San Francisco has its very own (neo-) Gothic cathedral, standing atop Nob Hill and looking at least a little like the great churches built in England, France, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe during the High Middle Ages. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that there might be other relics of the Middle Ages in San Francisco as well—whether authentic or, like this cathedral, mere imitations. It was much too late in the quarter to incorporate San Francisco into my curriculum, and at any rate, I didn’t have time to catch my breath while teaching three classes for the first time. But after the quarter finished, I set off to investigate whether San Francisco—a North American city founded in the eighteenth century—could teach me something about medieval Europe.

Grace Cathedral

The first stop on my medieval San Francisco tour was Grace Cathedral, the church on Nob Hill. Built in stages from 1927 to 1964, Grace Cathedral has a structure of steel and concrete that is designed to be earthquake-safe. The architecture is primarily based on French Gothic examples, although certain elements were taken from Spanish and English churches.

Facade of Grace Cathedral.

Facade of Grace Cathedral.

Looking up at the facade of Grace Cathedral.

Looking up at the facade of Grace Cathedral.

Backside of Grace Cathedral.

Backside of Grace Cathedral.

Almost all signage at the cathedral is written in this quasi-medieval uncial script.

Almost all signage at the cathedral is written in this quasi-medieval uncial script.

Although work on the church stopped in 1964, it has never really been finished—in much the same way that many medieval cathedrals were left incomplete. The vaults of the nave have not been filled in, and many of the wall and column surfaces are bare concrete. The parts of the church that have been completed look terrific; the rest, less so.

View from the completed choir back into the nave with its incomplete vaults.

View from the completed choir back into the nave with its incomplete vaults.

The apse of Grace Cathedral.

The apse of Grace Cathedral. I’m not sure why that little bit of vault at the very top of the picture has been filled in while the rest has been left open.

The most impressive part of the cathedral for me was the Chapel of Grace, which has been completed in its entirety. It has an early-modern altarpiece.

Chapel of Grace (completed 1930).

Chapel of Grace (completed 1930).

Along the walls in the aisles are murals illustrating a variety of scenes, including the construction of the cathedral and the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945.

Mural of the construction of the cathedral.

Mural of the construction of the cathedral.

Mural of the founding of the UN (difficult to photograph because a Christmas tree was in the way).

Mural of the founding of the UN (difficult to photograph because a Christmas tree was in the way).

The cathedral is full of art, ranging from an actual medieval Spanish crucifix to a triptych completed in 1990 by Keith Haring.

Thirteenth-century Spanish crucifix.

Thirteenth-century Spanish crucifix.

Copy of a window from Chartres Cathedral.

Copy of a window from Chartres Cathedral.

Some archaic musical notation mounted on the wall.

Some archaic musical notation mounted on the wall.

The Keith Haring triptych in the AIDS Memorial Chapel.

The Keith Haring triptych in the AIDS Memorial Chapel.

I was also surprised to discover that the cathedral has copies of the doors of the bapistry at the cathedral in Florence, a famous piece of art from the early Renaissance. The doors in San Francisco were made from casts of the originals taken during World War II.

The cathedral's Ghiberti Doors.

The cathedral’s Ghiberti Doors.

Detail of the Jacob and Esau scene from the Ghiberti doors.

Detail of the Jacob and Esau scene from the Ghiberti Doors.

Portal of Santa María Óvila

The next stop on my tour was the campus of the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution on the western side of the city near Golden Gate Park. An outdoor theater in the back of Kalmanovitz Hall has a portal from Santa María de Óvila, a Cistercian monastery built in Spain between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. By the twentieth century, the monastery had fallen into disuse, and in the 1930s, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst bought large parts of it and had the stones crated and shipped to San Francisco. Although he planned to rebuild the monastery on one of his estates, that never happened, and the disassembled stones spent decades in Golden Gate Park. The de Young Museum assembled just the monastery’s church portal in 1965, but this was transferred to USF after the museum opened a new, earthquake-safe facility.

Portal of Santa María de Óvila.

Portal of Santa María de Óvila.

As a bonus, right inside Kalmanovitz Hall is another bit of medieval architecture, identified by a plaque on the wall as a “twelfth century Italian Romanesque portal.” It was gifted to USF by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (the Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum).

Portal from twelfth-century Italy.

Portal from twelfth-century Italy.

Detail of the top of the portal.

Detail of the top of the portal.

By the way, the rest of the stones for Hearst’s monastery were eventually transferred to New Clairvaux, a working Cistercian monastery in the Sacramento Valley. The stones were made into a new chapter house, which opened in 2012.

Modern statues of medieval warriors at the Legion of Honor

The last stop on my medieval San Francisco tour was the Legion of Honor, an art museum on a hilltop overlooking the Golden Gate and the city.

In front of the museum are two modern statues of medieval warriors: Rodrigo Díaz and Jeanne d’Arc.

I was especially interested in the statue of Rodrigo Díaz a.k.a. El Cid, an eleventh-century soldier of fortune who was exiled from his native Castile and set up an independent principality in Valencia. In the first medieval history class I taught, I had my students read The Song of the Cid, a twelfth-century fictionalization El Cid’s life and career.

Your blogger with El Cid and Babieca.

Your blogger with El Cid and Babieca.

The Legion of Honor’s statue of El Cid astride his horse Babieca was sculpted by Anna Hyatt Huntington in 1921. This cast was made about six years later.

Every vein on Babieca's huge bronze body is bulging.

Every vein on Babieca’s huge bronze body is bulging.

Anna’s husband Archer had translated The Song of the Cid into English, and this sculpture seems to be based on the fictionalized character in the epic.

El Cid could see the Golden Gate Bridge if he would just turn his head.

El Cid could see the Golden Gate Bridge if he would just turn his head.

The other statue, also by Anna Hyatt Huntington, is Jeanne d’Arc, better known in English as Joan of Arc, the French peasant who led her people to some morale-boosting victories against the English in the Hundred Years’ War. I’d had my students read Joan’s threatening letter to the English, and I had just watched the Luc Besson film The Messenger (1999), so Joan was on my mind too.

Joan of Arc is going to have trouble fighting the English without the blade of her sword. Just saying.

Joan of Arc is going to have trouble fighting the English without the blade of her sword. Just saying.

Pedestal of the Joan of Arc statue.

Pedestal of the Joan of Arc statue.

The design of Joan’s armor seems to be based on a fifteenth-century miniature painting of her.

Late medieval miniature of Joan of Arc in armor.

Late medieval miniature of Joan of Arc in armor.

Real-life medieval artifacts inside the Legion of Honor

Inside the Legion of Honor museum, there is a gallery of actual medieval artifacts.

This Madonna with child is from thirteenth-century Lorraine.

This Madonna with child is from thirteenth-century Lorraine.

Adam and Eve being confronted by God from fourteenth-century Spain.

Adam and Eve being confronted by God from fourteenth-century Spain.

Ceiling from the Palacio de Altamira, fifteenth-century Spain. This remarkable piece of architecture shows clear Moorish influence.

Ceiling from the Palacio de Altamira, fifteenth-century Spain. This remarkable piece of architecture shows clear Moorish influence.

Thus ended my tour of medieval San Francisco. As it turns out, San Francisco does have something to tell me about the Middle Ages in Europe. Despite being a modern building, Grace Cathedral got me thinking about what it might have felt like to visit one of the great cathedrals during the High Middle Ages. Anna Hyatt Huntington’s statues of El Cid and Joan of Arc made me consider how we remember and make use of the medieval past. And at USF and the Legion of Honor, I got to see actual relics of the Middle Ages in Europe. These places made me think about the Middle Ages in different ways than I could have by just looking at books. They could inspire my students to think differently as well.

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