In a speech at the anthropological Museum in Mexico City on May 3, 2013, President Obama said it may seem that “we seek to impose ourselves on Mexican sovereignty,” This sort of comment will pass over the heads of most Americans who are largely oblivious to our history with Mexico. However, it will hit Mexicans hard as they view the territorial limits of Mexico in the 1840s as their true limits and something they wish to recover. Mexicans view the “Mexican War (1846-1848)” like the Civil War is considered in Alabama; they call it “La Guerra de ’47.
I was also oblivious to this Mexican view until I had lunch with a Mexican law professor in Mexico City in July, 1985. At that time, I was studying Mexican Law as a student enrolled in a University of Houston program. During this lunch, the professor asked ,“What you think of this Chicano movement in your country?” I answered by saying, ‘I understand that there is a historical wave of immigration back and forth across the border reflecting job opportunities in the two countries. It is nothing of note.” He laughed at me as he said, “Boy, do you have this wrong. Here we call this La Reconquista (the reconquest) of old Mexico.” I was shocked by the comment and asked, in typical American bravado, And how do you suppose to do that?” He smiled and said, “The same way you did it to us.” I was floored as I quickly recognized that he meant that where illegal Anglo settlers moved into Mexican Texas in the 1830s and became strong enough to defeat Gen. Santa Anna’s troops at San Jacinto in 1836, illegal Mexicans would move into the United States. General Santa Anna made peace and ceded Texas to Sam Houston’s Texans. The peace treaty has never been recognized by the Mexican government that claimed Santa Anna lacked authority, a plausible argument. A map of Mexico in 1845 can be found here and it may surprise you.
Americans, in possession of Texas, now looked west and began to infiltrate Mexican California. John Fremont was the most famous “illegal.”. By 1845, tensions were intense and war was declared in 1846 over an incident where Mexican troops killed some Americans. The Mexican War, 1846-1848 found American troops in Mexico City and our Marines still sing of the “Halls of Montezuma” in their hymn. The war ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that gave the United States the Rio Grande border and ownership of Las Californias Norte that we now call California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado. The Gadsden purchase added to that in 1853 and the borders have not changed since then. The land shift has been dramatic, but is not recognized in the US. As I said, it is an important part of Mexico’s history and is something to which Mexicans pay attention.
My studies included Mexican land ownership laws. Now, no foreigner can have a clear title to land within 100 km of land borders with the US or Guatemala, or 50 km from the sea-coast. This is why foreigners never obtain a clear title to their condominiums in Acapulco, for example, but have to buy through a bank or Mexican citizen. I asked why this law was necessary and my professor said, “We’ve had a lot of trouble with foreigners on our borders in the past.” Sam Houston? I think so.
President Obama’s making reference to our imposing of sovereignty over Mexican territory seems to be recognizing that some Mexican claim remains. The law provides clear title obtained through conquest and treaty and that is the case here. but the reference to Mexico’s historical claims to the southwest is troubling as it may increase the tensions between the American and Mexican illegal immigrant populations. Then, when I read that the proposed immigration bill being considered in Congress may allow 30 million Mexicans to illegally enter the US, I’m very concerned that La Reconquista may actually be working, at least it is progressing very well up until now.