Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mexican menu

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet get a lesson in Yankee imperialism

The Maria Chronicles, # 30

Maria is lecturing on the Mexican War. Last week, she described the the rebellion of Texas, the "Oregon Question" and its resolution with Great Britain, and the class discussed John O'Sullivan's famous article "Manifest Destiny." Today she's outlined the outbreak of the war on the disputed Texas-Mexico border, the military campaigns (very little on this, not her favorite subject), and the occupation of Mexico City. She intends for the class to discuss an assigned excerpt from a Mexican textbook on the war, a neat little piece of curriculum she translated herself.

But first, a little detour (she's going to have to hurry to get those textbooks in). Though it's not really a major part of the ultimate resolution of the conflict, Maria has always been intrigued by the "All Mexico" movement, in which some politicians advocated absorbing the entire nation into the United States. What she's found interesting is the strong opposition to this idea, because it came from seemingly opposite sides: Northerners, especially those in New England, who opposed the war and were even more opposed to the seemingly inevitable expansion of slavery that would result; and some members of the plantation elite, like John Calhoun, who recoiled at absorbing large numbers of brown people into the nation. As she will soon explain, the Mexican War brought long-simmering sectional tensions into the open. But in this odd moment, abolitionists and racists found themselves on the same side. A good opportunity to illustrate the maxim that politics can make for strange bedfellows.

Peter raises his hand, and Maria acknowledges him. "I don't see why we just didn't take the whole thing. I mean we already occupied the country. Why give half of it back?"

Maria thought she had just answered exactly that question. But since Willie has raised her hand, perhaps she can do the job for her. "Because that isn't how we've done things," she says. "Mexico was already a big, developed country. It would be too hard for the Mexicans to adapt."

Not exactly how Maria would have put it, but all right. Unfortunately, there are now at least three sets of hands in the air. Reluctantly, she acknowledges Kenny.

"I disagree with Willie," he says. "America has always been a place where people adapt. I don't see why the Mexicans could not become successful Americans just like the immigrants did."

"Well, Kenny, you know Chicanos like to say: they didn't cross the border. The border crossed them."

"What's a Chicano?" Mia asks.

"A Mexican American." Maria's expecting this to somehow resolve the conversation, and she's just about to describe how Mexicans were deprived of their rights and property through subversion of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but hands persist. Vanessa's now seems even more urgent. Maria nods to her. "I agree with Willie," she says. "You gotta think about the cost. Would it really be worth it?"

"Yeah," Ali jumps in. "There would probably be resistance. Like Iraq or Afghanistan. The Mexicans might not accept American occupation. There would be guerrilla war."

This is a good point. But Maria is dismayed that Ali seems to be looking at this through the lens of the occupier.

The pretense of hands is now gone. Kenny: "I still think the Mexicans should get the chance. Look at California today. It's incredibly rich and powerful. Maybe the rest of the Mexico could have turned out that way." Now there's a chorus of cacophony.

What a group of little imperialists! The one quarter of Maria that is Mexican would like to give this gringos a verbal lashing. But she restrains herself. "Okay okay," she yells above the din, which quickly subsides. "You're raising some very good points. But let's a have a look at the reading now and discuss what the Mexicans themselves have said about the Mexican War. How would your characterize their view?"

All hands come down. Then the dutiful Willie raises hers. "Well, they viewed the whole thing as a naked power grab," she begin, going on to quote the textbook: "The acquisition is not going to erase the blot of iniquity which has been written into the pages of U.S. history."

These kids have no idea, she thinks to herself as Willie reads on. They still think the United States runs the world. They're in for a rude awakening. But that's not my job, thank God. That's a lesson they're going to learn down the road. Outside the classroom. She hopes to be long gone by then.