Why Nobody Celebrates May 13

By Mel Goldberg

5 de mayo


There are many war-related holidays celebrated in The United States and Mexico. The United States celebrates July 4 because the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on that day in 1776.

Mexicans celebrate Independence Day on September 16, the day in 1810 when Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rang the bell of his little church, issued his famous Grito de Dolores, and called for independence from Spain. When Spain signed the Treaty of Córdoba on September 27, 1821, Mexico included three provinces north of the Rio Grande River: California, Texas, and New Mexico.

Mexicans also celebrate Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the defeat of elite French troops by Mexican irregulars at the battle of Puebla in 1862. However, one infamous date that both the United States and Mexico tend to ignore is May 13. That was the day in 1848 when President James K. Polk declared war against Mexico, a war which has impacted citizens of both countries for the past 160 years.

In the 1820s, when many Americans sought cheap land in the Mexican province of Texas, they were welcomed. In many instances, land was given at no cost. But the immigrants were a thankless bunch, complaining about the laws and customs of the country that had embraced them. One of these immigrants, Sam Houston, publicly declared that he did not want to live under Mexican rule.

In 1836 he led a move for Texas independence, which was thwarted when the Alamo in San Antonio was taken by Mexican troops led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. But President Polk was not dissuaded. He believed in the concept of Manifest Destiny, popularized by New York journalist John L. O’Sullivan to urge the annexation of Texas. In 1845 President Polk sent John Slidell, a Louisiana Senator (and later a Confederate supporter), to purchase California and New Mexico. But Mexican president José Joaquin de Herrera said, “Lo siento, pero no están para la venta.” But in spite of that, in 1846 the U. S. Senate voted to annex Texas.

When Mexico severed relations with the United States, Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to set up camp on the northern bank of the Rio Grande facing the Mexican army across the river. Ordered to retreat, Taylor refused. On April 24, the Mexican Army crossed the Rio Grande and killed or wounded sixteen American soldiers. Polk then declared war, stating that Mexico had “invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil.” The war between The United States and Mexico ended on February 2, 1848, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico had lost almost half its territory. Two young American West Point graduates, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant got their first battle experience. Because of America’s first war of aggression, about 150,000 Mexicans became part of the American population, producing a cultural clash that chafes Mexican-American relations to this day.

To be sure, some Americans denounced the war. Abe Lincoln condemned it in Congress. Henry David Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay taxes to support it. But given this inglorious period in each country’s otherwise proud history, I suppose it is understandable why both countries tend to ignore May 13.


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