How the Southwest Was Won

Mexicans know well the events of 1847, but one battle seems forgotten

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Planted quietly along the banks of Rio Churubusco - an Aztec word meaning "place of the hummingbirds" - between Mexico City and Xochimilco farther south, the small Churubusco Convent seemed an unlikely spot for a showdown between Mexican patriots and invading American troops.

But it was here, in August 1847, that American Gen. Winfield Scott's army confronted an outnumbered band of Mexican soldiers and Irish sympathizers. Though Mexico's defenders had seven imposing cast-iron cannons in their favor, 90 percent of their soldiers were young men who had never experienced warfare. The battle lasted only a day - Aug. 20 - before the convent fell. Three weeks later, the Americans would take all of Mexico City.

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the fall of Churubusco Convent, an event that paved the way for the American occupation of Mexico City. It was this occupation that resulted in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of Feb. 2, 1848, which ceded half of what had once been a giant Mexico - including California, Texas, and the rest of the southwest from Arizona and New Mexico to Colorado and part of Wyoming - to the United States.

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The Mexican-American War remains the historical reference that colors relations between the two countries, putting them in a context where, from many Mexicans' point of view, it is perpetually Mexico that is wronged and offended by its arrogant northern neighbor. The signing of NAFTA in 1993 marked a shift to more equitable relations, but the memory of 1847 is still just below the surface when cross-border smiles turn to frowns over issues such as immigration, drug trafficking, the illegal arms trade, or economic dependence.

"[We Mexicans] lost half of our national territory," said Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes last month in a speech in Chicago to the National Council of La Raza, in a reference to 1847, "so we must be sure that this [US-Mexico] border heals and never bleeds again."

Yet, while other events from that war a century and a half ago remain seared on the Mexican memory, the battle of Churubusco Convent seems almost forgotten. Mexican children learn about the Nios Hroes (Boy Heroes), the beardless military cadets who defended the last Mexican stronghold at the city's hilltop, Chapultepec Castle. One of them chose to plunge to his death - wrapped, it is said, in a Mexican flag - rather than be captured by the invading Yankees. President Clinton laid a wreath at the monument to the Nios Hroes when he visited in May.

But even though the convent is in some respects Mexico's Alamo, dignitaries never venture here to condemn interventionism and extol sovereignty, and no one is ever heard crying, "Remember Churubusco!"

We know, my family and I, because we live within cannon shot of the convent - now a museum dedicated to the memory of foreign interventions in Mexico. The main thoroughfare off of which branches our cobbled side street is named for the "Hroes del '47," while the street behind us, "Mrtires Irlandeses," commemorates the Irish soldiers who deserted the US Army to side with Mexico. The nearby metro station is named after Gen. Pedro Mara Anaya, who helped lead Churubusco's ill-fated defense.

AT first we winced as our gringo children (the last one Mexican born, it's true) merrily shimmied across cannons starkly marked 1847, beside a plaque telling how the impressive guns were used in futile battle against the American invaders. But now, as our seven-year-old perfects his bicycling talents on the paving stones outside the former convent, we rarely give the old battle a thought.

Sometimes to an American, Mexicans can seem obsessed with their northern neighbor and the wrongs it has done Mexico. I have been told by strangers walking past the Nios Hroes monument in central Mexico City that the United States should be more respectful of Mexico's sovereignty; that the "anti-imperialist spirit" of those boy soldiers burns within every Mexican; that Mexican immigration will one day equal the "taking back" of "our other half"; that it was an affront to see a United States president lay a wreath at the Mexican boys' feet (Clinton was not the first US president to do so).

But that revanchism doesn't surface at the peaceful, tree-ringed former convent. We have occasionally struck up a conversation with Mexicans enjoying a Sunday afternoon on the museum's grounds, but we have never been lectured on what Churubusco stands for, or how ironic it is to hear our children chattering in American English outside these shot-pocked walls. (During some past renovation, care was obviously taken not to cover over the walls' bullet wounds.)

Perhaps this is because Sundays in Mexico are family days not to be marred by historical grievances. Perhaps it's because the school history texts didn't find the appealing heroes in Churubusco that Chapultepec offered with the Nios Hroes. Or perhaps the explanation is simply this: Churubusco doesn't have the symbolic impact of the monuments, such as the Angel of Independence, the statue of Columbus, or the monument to the Nios Hroes, that sit in the Mexican capital's heart.

Still, just as I can recall wishing I knew, during a visit once to the Alamo, what was really going through the heads of the Mexican visitors near me, I can't help wondering the same thing here: What are the Mexicans thinking, as they eye the gringo family walking along the old Churubusco Convent's bullet-battered walls?

* Howard LaFranchi is the Monitor's staff writer in Mexico.

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