Niños Héroes #1: Introduction

In 1984, I visited the monument to Los Niños Héroes (The Children Heroes). The six towers stood guard below the castle atop Grasshopper Hill in Mexico City’s beautiful Chapultepec Park. At their base, a small plaque read in Spanish, “To the memory of the young cadets who here gave their lives, defending their homeland from the invader.”

After reading it amid a large crowd of tourists, I turned to the fellow next to me and asked, “Who were the invaders?”

He looked back at me in astonishment. Others walked away shaking their heads.

How was it possible for me, a United States citizen, a college graduate and a teacher no less, to have been so stupid? I’d heard of the Mexican-American War, of course; but knew only that the United States had won. I’d assumed it was merely another example of my country “making the world safe for democracy.” We’d certainly never invaded anyone.

The truth, which I looked up when I returned home, filled me first with shame, then a reverence for Los Niños and their sacrifice:

In 1846, U.S. President Polk, determined to fulfill America’s “Manifest Destiny,” vowed to extend our borders all the way to the Pacific. When Mexico refused to sell him the American Southwest, Polk used a Texas border dispute as a pretext for war. (Even Abraham Lincoln referred to the resulting conflict as a “trumped up war.”) American forces invaded on three fronts and marched all the way to Mexico City.

The city’s last defense was the castle on top of Grasshopper Hill housing a military academy. The young cadets fought tenaciously, valiantly, futilely. Six of them, Los Niños Héroes, overcome with patriotic despair, disobeyed their commander’s order to surrender, and chose to die fighting. One of them, Francisco Márquez, was only 13 years old. According to legend, another, Juan Escutia, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and leapt off the ramparts to his death.

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And I’d flippantly asked who the invaders had been!

I soon made a pilgrimage back to Los Niños Héroes. I went to pay homage, to beg forgiveness (for myself and for my country), and to make a solemn pledge: I would tell their story to all my students every year. For the rest of my career, I did.

Los Niños Héroes symbolize so much of Mexico’s noble yet tragic history. It’s no surprise that American textbooks don’t mention them; but it is a terrible shame, especially given how closely our nations are linked both economically and culturally.

Mexico finally became my home. My partner and I retired to Ajijic, just south of Guadalajara. I soon noticed with no surprise how Ajijic and nearly every Mexican city and town had a street named Los Niños Héroes; which got me wondering about all the other streets, such as Benito Juárez, Francisco Madero, Lázaro Cárdenas….. And I realized with renewed shame that I’d remained woefully ignorant of Mexican history. I really hadn’t fulfilled my promise to those brave cadets of Chapultepec.

This book is my belated gift to them, and to all my fellow expats and tourists who live in or visit the beautiful country that is Mexico. It is long-past time that we learn its culture, including its history.

The good news is that, with its colorful cast of villains and visionaries, Mexican history is fascinating; which may explain why so many streets here honor it.

Some words of caution: although I’ve loved and taught history for decades, I am not a trained historian; and but a rank beginner when it comes to Mexican history. In addition, as I’ve made the succeeding stories brief, I’ve left much out, and sometimes have had to take a few liberties with, for example, chronology. I offer mere introductions. I hope they motivate others to learn much more about Mexico, its rich history and gracious people.

I truly enjoyed doing so.

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