Last week marked the 150th anniversary of a turning point in U.S. and Mexican history. Depending on your point of view, the timing couldn't be better for national interests--or it couldn't be worse. For it was on May 13, 1846, that the United States declared war on Mexico to secure the annexation of Texas, parts of which Mexico still claimed. The war ended Feb. 2, 1848, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which the United States acquired not only Texas but also California and most of the magnificent land in between.
So for the next two years, people on both sides of our southern border will be continually reminded of what was probably the most successful, wrong and inevitable war this country ever waged.
It was successful because it led to the largest territorial expansion in the nation's history, rivaled only by the Louisiana Purchase.
It was wrong (the word used by Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the war as a young congressman from Illinois) because it was waged against a weak, peaceful neighbor.
It was inevitable because of a visionary concept whose resonance has faded over time, but which meant a great deal in 1845, early in the presidency of James K. Polk: Manifest Destiny. That was the popularly held notion that it was the destiny of the republic to expand across North America, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific coast.
It is not politically correct for a Mexican American like me to admit it, but I think the proponents of Manifest Destiny were right. Not in their methods, to be sure. (I'm with Abe Lincoln on that.) But Polk and his compatriots cannot be faulted for moving to seize and exploit what the European explorers and their descendants on this continent considered virgin territory. If the United States had not claimed the lands formerly under the Spanish crown, one of the 19th century European powers probably would have.
Every point I've made so far is, I readily concede, arguable. Rest assured that they will be debated over the next couple of years. For now, I only hope that the history of relations between the United States and Mexico is recalled and talked about in constructive terms.
Now that people in both countries are better educated and have access to sophisticated media of all sorts, it should be easier to put many patriotic myths that grew out of that era into a more realistic perspective. As I wrote 10 years ago when Texas celebrated the sesquicentennial of its independence, the Battle of the Alamo was not a one-sided struggle against hopeless odds, as Hollywood has portrayed it many times. On the Mexican side, Los Nios Heroes (the Heroic Children), six military cadets who died fighting the U.S. Marines who captured Mexico City in 1847, may not have been all that young or heroic.
People of goodwill on both sides of the border must also be prepared to counter the alarmist rhetoric that is sure to be heard in both countries before this sesquicentennial ends.
Mexico-related issues like illegal immigration and the North American Free Trade Agreement are already political hot-buttons this election year. So expect to hear conspiracy theorists in full Cassandra-like fury claiming that Mexico is using illegal immigrants to reconquer its lost territories, or that Wall Street is using NAFTA to take control of Mexico just as it controls the U.S. government.
Myths, whether rosy or scary, whether of the past or the present, may help some people deal with the harsh complexities of everyday life. But they will get us nowhere in trying to advance the dialogue between two large "distant neighbors" that must live with each other because, for better or worse, they need each other.
Without immigrants from Mexico, the economies of California, Texas and the other former Mexican territories--not to mention the economies of U.S. cities as far from the border as Chicago and New York--would not be nearly as prosperous as they are. And without NAFTA, Mexico would not have been able to ride out its latest financial crisis as well as it has.
Some of the more thoughtful proponents of NAFTA argued for it on the basis that it was no more than a trading system to better regulate a process that was already well underway: the integration of the Mexican, Canadian and U.S. economies as goods and capital flow more freely across international boundaries.
I would push that argument further: It is only a matter of time before all three nations take the next logical step and create a system to better regulate a migration that is also well underway: the movement of young Mexicans northward to work while U.S. and Canadian entrepreneurs and retirees head south to prosper in warmer climes.
Some writers have called this migration one of the inevitable global "megatrends." Fair enough. But here's another way to look at it: Is economically motivated migration just a continuation of the economic expansion that 19th century Americans called Manifest Destiny? It's a question worth pondering over the next couple of years.