I’ve always been cautioned that there are two sides to every story…and remembering that has saved me on multiple occasions.
Until this trip to Mexico, I’ve never truly stopped to consider the fact that moments of historical significance also share two sides of the story.
Growing up, I was the mischievous student who found ways to get in trouble—until it was time for history class. As the pages turned and my teachers went on about exploration, battles, and conquests, I was zoned in until the bell rang. It’s naive of me to admit that I’ve trusted the history books and accepted the viewpoints of my teachers all along.
This city of Veracruz is rich in historical significance. The Spanish Conquistador, Hernán Cortés, led an expedition against the natives and triumphantly laid claim to the eastern coast of Veracruz, Mexico on Good Friday in 1519. It was here that he anointed it, “True Cross” or Veracruz as a seaport of riches and new land for the Spanish.
Fast-forward 494 years to today and you’ll find me wandering around the “centro histórico” here in Veracruz as I try and place all of the history while attempting to decipher Spanish. Sound the “gringo” alarm!
In this moment, Ricardo Cañas Montalvo, saved the day. He’s the curator of the City Museum of Veracruz and has been for many years. He pulled us inside the courtyard of the museum and beautifully recreated the imagery of 150 children running around and playing on the Italian marble that had been laid where we stood in 1861 when this building was constructed to house an orphanage. It became the museum after serving as a home to orphans for 97 years.
Ricardo spoke of the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Totonacs, and other ancient civilizations from Mesoamerica. He captured my attention with stories of ancient burial grounds on islands off the coast of Veracruz and spoke of years when this port city was the center of trade for Latin America. As we moved through the museum, I was anticipating that we might get to that little piece of history when the United States moved into Veracruz and occupied the city during a push to assert power in the midst of deteriorating relations with Mexico during their revolution. The anticipation wore off as my new friend dove right into the story.
Mexico vividly remembers the details from 99 years ago. I listened to a different perspective from Ricardo. It wasn’t told with bitterness. He simply stated the historical facts and actions of the United States and Mexico during the U.S. occupation of Veracruz in 1914. He was incredibly intelligent and recalled the story from historical accounts and pictures on a laptop computer inside the museum.
As the Mexican side of the story goes, eight U.S. Marines rowed into town one day from their ship that was just off the Mexican coast in April of 1914. They proceeded to buy gasoline and other necessities before returning to sea. When encountered by soldiers of the Mexican military, they were held for a couple of hours until the confusion of U.S. soldiers wandering ashore in the mix of the Mexican Revolution could be sorted out. All was well until President Woodrow Wilson caught wind of our soldiers being held without cause in Mexico. He ordered a U.S. Naval blockade of over 180 naval ships just outside the port of Veracruz. Tensions never boiled over in the port city and as a result, it was passed by leaders from both sides that the standoff should cease in Veracruz. Mexico ordered their troops inland towards Mexico City to engage in offical battles of the revolution and also as a demonstration that they intended no hostilities towards the American troops. President Woodrow Wilson had issues with the newly instituted president of Mexico, Victoriano “The Jackal” Huerta, because he was involved in a coup d’état and usurped the Mexican presidency in 1913 to establish a dictatorship. With the Mexican military moving inland, President Wilson instead sent 5,000 U.S. troops onto the shores of Veracruz in what was described as a “peaceful occupation” of the city. The civilian population feared for their lives as the U.S. cut telegraph lines and seized critical strongholds like the train station and buildings of key infrastructure. With no Mexican military present, the citizens of Veracruz broke into various weapon depots throughout the city and issued a call to arms against the occupation of U.S. forces. Additional forces from the American side were called in, which resulted in street fighting as Veracruz was bombarded with artillery by U.S. ships along the blockade. The occupation lasted for seven months until November of 1914. The U.S. had 22 casualties, yet Mexico lost thousands upon thousands of militiamen and civilians who were shot and left in the streets. An official count of the casualties has never been tallied due to the fact that those who lost their lives were piled into mass graves surrounding Veracruz. The city never forgave the U.S. invasion until generations had passed.
Ricardo opened my eyes to a fresh perspective. This story isn’t a fond piece of American history. Therefore, it is overlooked and wiped from the books we studied as students. There isn’t much to be researched about our occupation of Veracruz. The years passed and America moved on. However, it is still a critical piece of Mexican history. Monuments stand tall in the center of plazas throughout Veracruz as a somber reminder to those who proudly took a stand for their city against an unjustified occupation.
I don’t write this post as a knock on America. Ricardo didn’t share the vivid details and pictures of Mexican patriotism with animosity towards me for being an American. He simply told history. He shared perspective. He provided the details that we as a nation have chosen to forget. Ricardo didn’t rewrite the history books. He simply showed me the story through pictures and documentation.
As travelers, we tend to see the world from various perspectives and different means. I for one choose to dive into cultures and seek the experience of living like a local. I take the risks on local foods. I push through language barriers and I communicate through smiles. I walk for miles and I wander through slums. It positively changes your perspective and outlook when you put yourself in the element of someone else’s routine.
It wasn’t until today that I really stopped to consider—not the routine of someone else, but instead, the history and perspective—of someone who has been brought up with an entirely different vantage point because of those that have lived and in some cases, died before them.
Next time you travel, I encourage you to seek out the other side of history.
Vary Your Viewpoints,