La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, II

La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, Part II (Guadalupe-Hidalgo)

ublished in The Noise, Fall 2012

There’s no getting around it: Arizona was once part of Mexico. Together with the looming water shortages, it is the inconvenient truth that is ever-present in Arizona politics. That which we don’t want to talk about and is yet omnipresent––making us either  uncomfortable or resentful, but always lending just the right amount of irony to the anti-immigration rhetoric spewed by state politicians. 

But that was then, they say, this is now. What’s the big deal? 

The Deal is that the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 did more to shape the destiny of North America than any single incident since the landing of Columbus. Consciously or not, we’re still struggling to come to terms with its consequences. 

The war, and specifically the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that followed it, is the key moment in the U.S.’s rise to superpower status––or an early victory of budding U.S. imperialism, depending on which vocabulary you’d prefer to use. 

Oh, and the majority of what was later to become Arizona was won by the United States during the conflict. The borders of Mexican states and indigenous societies that had crisscrossed the territory were suddenly erased from the map. With the stroke of a pen in a distant capital city, Arizona was on the way to becoming the political entity that we know today. 

Interesting, then, that the war registers as barely a blip on the historical radar of the U.S. populace, and hardly more than that here in Arizona. Meanwhile, in Mexico, it’s a different story. The First American Intervention––as the conflict is also known––factors hugely in national history, patriotic legends, and self-image. That contrast alone is telling, but there’s much more to be learned about ourselves and our state from even a few of the anecdotes from 1847.

Not that there’s room here to fully address the history. Entire books can––and have––been written on the subject. Instead, we’ll look at a few details that are particularly relevant to our story of the malleable, migratory and often blurry borders that outline Arizona. 

Though California and Texas were well-known to citizens of the U.S. in the 1840’s, the term New Mexico barely factored into the national consciousness, and Arizona not at all. The name which we have grown to know and love was then used only to describe a small region southeast of Nogales, and its etymology is a source of debate. Indeed, the winning of Arizona was incidental in the push to own the coast of California, fueled and justified by the spiritual-cum-political doctrine of Manifest Destiny. (See part I of this LOA series)

The inexact nature of borders had everything to do with the beginning of the Mexican-American War. Texas had been a proxy in the U.S.-Mexico conflict since the moment that the latter country gained independence, and its southern limit a matter of dispute. The border was literally in two different places at once, depending on which country you asked. 

The U.S. President Polk moved troops into the area claimed by Mexico in 1845, and soon decried Mexican aggression when shots broke out early the following year. It was an eery foreshadowing of the justifications for later U.S. wars––think Gulf of Tonkin or weapons of mass destruction.

By March 1847 General Winfield Scott was making the first major amphibious assault in U.S. military history on the Mexican port of Veracruz, and from there leading the march to Mexico City. Interestingly, this was nearly the exact route taken a few centuries earlier by the conquistador Hernán Cortés in his invasion of Mexico on behalf of a growing empire. Scott advanced in a bloody campaign marked by widespread disease and mass desertions of soldiers from both sides, but was victorious and officially occupied Mexico City for the U.S. for nearly six months. If a map had been drawn of U.S. territory then, what would it have looked like? 

The terms of Guadalupe-Hidalgo were negotiated while the autocratic Mexican President Santa Anna had a gun to his head (almost literally). Mexico would turn over more than half of its territory to the U.S. in exchange for $15 million dollars. By paying for the territory, the U.S. was able to call the “Mexican Cession” a purchase rather than a conquest and thus assuage its conscience. Not that any money actually exchanged hands, though––the $15 million was simply applied against the enormous debt that Mexico owed to the U.S. at the time. 

Conveniently, the year after California became part of the U.S., giant gold deposits were discovered there. This jumpstarted the first push of U.S. citizens into their new territory, an estimated 300,000 people total. In only first five years of the gold rush, 370 tons of the metal was extracted––that’s roughly $668 million in 1854 dollars or more than $16 billion in 2010 dollars. 

So you could say the U.S. got a good deal. And that’s the crux of Guadalupe-Hidalgo’s relevance today. The enormous natural wealth of western North America is what shot the young United States onto the world stage as a major power. 

It is the same phenomena that had transformed Europe into a globally dominant force centuries before, when the Spanish took the vast gold works of the conquered indigenous empires, melted them down into ingots and shipped them across the Atlantic.

It’s not a stretch to say then that the first world was created thanks to the wealth of las Américas. 

And boom. Manifest Destiny manifested, right? Sea-to-shining-sea? With its appetite for expansionism satiated, the U.S. could relax into its continental crib, no more need for interventions or purchases… right?

Our story of borders-on-the-march continues next month, just south of Arizona’s Gila River. 


For further reading:
Officer, James E. Hispanic Arizona, 1536-1856, 1987.
Wagoner, Jay J. Early Arizona: Prehistory to Civil War, 1975.
Zinn, Howard. “We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God.” A People’s History of the United States, 1980.