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Line Drawn in 1848 Shaped Who We Are

Border: The treaty that ended the U.S. war with Mexico might have made a different California.

March 01, 1998|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

I find it odd that so many people in this country are taking note of the centennial of the outbreak of the Spanish-American war--the sinking of the battleship Maine was on Feb. 15, 1898--while at the same time virtually ignoring an important anniversary in the Mexican-American War.

I refer to the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which on Feb. 2, 1848, ended hostilities in a much longer (22 months as opposed to four) conflict.

The Spanish-American War certainly merits attention. It made this country a world power when Washington wrested from Spain not just Caribbean islands like Cuba and Puerto Rico, but key outposts in the Pacific like the Philippines and Guam.

But the spoils of the Mexican War are not to be denigrated. The peace treaty, named after the Mexico City suburb where it was signed, acknowledged the United States' annexation of Texas as a state and ceded half of Mexico's territory to this country--land that today includes all or parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Montana.

Other effects of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also resonate to the present day. Its echoes are heard in debates over everything from illegal immigration to NAFTA to which national team Mexican-born soccer fans in Los Angeles should root for.

To begin with, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo created the first generation of Mexican Americans by guaranteeing the Mexicans who inhabited the ceded territories the right to their property, language and culture. To this day there are Latino activists who cite the treaty, and not more recent civil rights laws, as the legal basis for programs like bilingual education. I personally think such arguments are on shaky ground, given how much things have changed in the Southwest since 1848. But that doesn't make the argument any less interesting or provocative.

Of more relevance, to my mind, is that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo put the western end of the U.S.-Mexico border in an utterly illogical--and ultimately rather futile--place.

As the final details of the treaty were being hammered out by diplomats in Mexico City, there was uncertainty almost to the last moment over where exactly to draw a new U.S. border with Mexico. The Mexicans wanted to draw the line at the 37th parallel, just south of Monterey. They assumed the United States would be satisfied with the two fine harbors offered by the San Francisco and Monterey bays. But U.S. negotiators also wanted the harbor at San Diego included in the deal.

According to a San Diego State University historian, Richard Griswold del Castillo, the Mexicans tried to keep San Diego by insisting that the mission there had long been considered the northernmost outpost of Baja California. But their claim was disproved when a young military officer in the U.S. delegation, a Virginian named Robert E. Lee who would go on to fame in the Civil War, researched the Mexican archives and came up with proof that the mission San Diego de Alcala was actually the southernmost outpost of the province of Alta California.

With the conquering army of Gen. Winfield Scott still occupying Mexico City, the U.S. argument carried the day and the U.S.-California border was set at "one marine league due south of the southernmost point " of San Diego Bay. That is where it runs today, between the San Diego suburb of San Ysidro and the Mexican metropolis of Tijuana.

And for all the controversy that still flies around that border, over drug smuggling and other crimes, immigration, pollution and the like, there is no denying that both San Diego and Tijuana have prospered from the relative openness of their mutual frontier.

One suspects that is how Lee and the other U.S. negotiators wanted it. For if the U.S. had really wanted a virtually impenetrable border with Mexico, it would have drawn the line somewhere else in 1848. Maybe not below Monterey Bay, but perhaps along the spine of California's rugged coastal mountains, leaving the ocean side to Mexico.

Imagine a border running from where the Santa Ynez Mountains rise north of Santa Barbara, to the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains that loom above the Los Angeles Basin. From the terminus of those mountain ranges all the way to the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico, the Mojave and Sonora deserts provide another formidable barrier. Even in modern times, such a border would have been virtually impassable by anyone who didn't have a legitimate reason to cross.

But in 1848, a victorious United States wanted all it could get from Mexico and pretty much came away with it. In the process it got a little more than it bargained for, not least a whole lot of Mexican Americans whose distant cousins continue to live and work in the Southwest, and far beyond it, to this very day.

There are plenty of U.S. citizens who worry about that, I know. But it does help explain why, to most Latinos, the migration of Mexicans back and forth across our southern border seems a perfectly natural and normal part of life. And for all our efforts to change it through immigration restrictions and bigger border fences, we shouldn't expect it to change very much.

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