Today, Feb. 2, also known as Groundhog Day, marks a more momentous event in North American history that most Americans can’t remember, and most Mexicans can’t forget.
On that date in 1848, negotiators for the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, formally ending what we, north of the border, call the Mexican-American War and what our neighbors to the south still call “the American Invasion.” Under the terms of the treaty, Mexico surrendered 525,000 square miles to the United States, more than half of its territory.
Considering this includes all or part of present-day California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado, you would think that, on Feb. 2, the treaty would at least compete in the national consciousness with Punxsutawney Phil.
The fact that it doesn’t painfully demonstrates our limited and largely distorted knowledge of Mexico and its importance to the United States.
Noted Mexican historian Enrique Krauze once wrote that Americans have “thoroughly forgotten” the Mexican-American War. To the extent it triggers any memory, it is usually linked to the 1836 battle for Texas independence (“Remember the Alamo!”), the first line of the Marines’ Hymn (“From the Halls of Montezuma”) or Civil War generals such as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant, who cut their fighting teeth in the conflict.
The war was not a contest of equals. The Mexicans had the advantage of numbers and home turf, but their troops were poor conscripts and their generals were often as preoccupied with internal Mexican conflicts as with their external enemy.
With superior equipment, training and leadership, the Americans prevailed. Grant later wrote in his memoirs that the conflict was “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”
While few Americans have dwelled on the war since Grant, it continues to inform Mexicans. Every Mexican school child studies its details, and an imposing monument in central Mexico City attests to the death on Sept. 13, 1847, of six young cadets who ignored orders to fall back as American troops stormed the final strong point in the Mexican capital. One of them reportedly wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and jumped from the battlements to his death to prevent the flag from falling into Americans hands. Sept. 13 is a national holiday in Mexico.
Americans have a well-earned reputation for fuzziness about the outside world, but today’s Mexico should be hard to ignore. It is the second-largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States. It is also the second-largest export market for U.S. goods, after Canada but well ahead of China.
A few days after Hurricane Katrina leveled New Orleans, the Mexican Army sent two field kitchens to San Antonio, Texas, where, for a month, they fed three hot meals a day to those displaced by the disaster.
What we must remember is that we cannot solve the immigration, border and drug problems that do manage to break into the American consciousness without the active cooperation of Mexico. This will be hard to enlist if all we know about Mexico is what we learn from spring break in Cancun, a steady diet of shock-talk radio or the half-baked assertions of alarmist U.S. presidential candidates who talk only of electrified border fences and undocumented landscapers.
Mexico is a vibrant country of 113 million people with real problems and incredible potential whose future is inextricably tied to ours, and who also will vote for a new president in 2012. It casts at least as long a shadow as Punxsutawney Phil’s.
Stephen R. Kelly, a visiting professor of public policy and North American issues at Duke University, served as deputy chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City from 2004-2006. This commentary was originally published in The New Jersey Star-Ledger.