(Note: Secretary of State Clinton will travel to Mexico today to prepare for a visit next month by President Obama. The author is lecturing and writing in Mexico this spring.)
SAN LUIS POTOSI, Mexico — A big boulevard called Himno Nacional parallels the Avenida González Bocanegra, named for this pretty colonial city’s native son, the love poet who penned the libretto to the Mexican national anthem. The story behind the composition of the song is apt for one that millions memorize and sing not for freely felt love of the lyrics and melody, but as dutiful subjects of the State.
Legend has it that the poet, who like Ferdinand the Bull just liked the flowers and was altogether for making amor instead of guerra, was locked in a room by his ambitious fiancée, who wanted him to win the prestige of a writing competition called in 1853 by President Antonio López de Santa Anna.
After four painful hours without a trip to the loo, Francisco González Bocanegra emerged with 10 stanzas brimming with fire and gore. For his pains he won a burial place in the national pantheon in Mexico City.
While our “Star-Spangled Banner” is not exactly irenic, the Mexican anthem’s decibel meter for bellicosity goes to eleven.
It is, for an outlander, an unsettling experience to visit a private girls school and witness the little ones arrayed martially in their uniform blouses and plaid pleated skirts, their right arms rigid in the Roman salute, singing this:
Mexicanos, al grito de guerra
el acero aprestad y el bridón.
Y retiemble en su centro la tierra,
al sonoro rugir del cañón.
(Mexicans, at the cry of war,
make ready the steel and the steed,
and may the earth tremble at its center
at the resounding roar of the cannon.)
Mas si osare un extraño enemigo
profanar con su planta tu suelo,
piensa ¡oh Patria querida! que el cielo
un soldado en cada hijo te dio.
(But if some enemy outlander should dare
to profane your ground with his step,
think, oh beloved country! that heaven
has given you a soldier in every son.)
If there can be such a thing as an “over the top” Götterdämmerung, this is it in a stanza taught in school but not usually sung on official occasions:
Antes, patria, que inermes tus hijos
Bajo el yugo su cuello dobleguen,
Tus campiñas con sangre se rieguen,
Sobre sangre se estampe su pie.
Y tus templos, palacios y torres
Se derrumben con hórrido estruendo,
Y sus ruinas existan diciendo:
De mil héroes la patria aquí fue.
(O Fatherland, ere your children, defenseless
bend their neck beneath the yoke,
may your fields be watered with blood,
may they leave their footprints in blood.
And may your temples, palaces and towers
collapse with horrid clamor,
and their ruins continue on, saying:
Of a thousand heroes, this Fatherland was.)
Kids, moms, and dads: This is not “Dora the Explorer” or “De Colores.” It’s the real deal.
What could be the thoughts of these innocent young girls as they intone their nation’s war chant?
What was González Bocanegra thinking when he wrote this?
Besides the call of nature and the pangs of love, he had a motive to brown-nose Santa Anna and his regime, sore from the humiliation of United States invasion of Mexico a few years before.
Nota bene: The verses were written a decade before the French invasion of Mexico and installation of Maximilian of Hapsburg as Emperor. In the original intent of the Mexican national anthem, there is one and only one foreign invader as object of enmity — and its capital is on a river called Potomac.
Was this an instance of sincere patriotic expression or self-concious parody, some sort of “secret writing”?
Leo Strauss, call your office.
There is reason to doubt that the throngs in Minute Maid Park, waiting for the first pitch and the second Budweiser, give much thought to the rockets and ramparts of war when they sing our national anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is another warning against invasion, inspired by the British attacks on Washington and Baltimore in the War of 1812. Our anthem’s seldom-sung third verse is the bloodiest part of the song:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
The United States anthem is triumphal and optimistic; the anthem of Mexico, which has never won a war, is bitter and fatalistic.
Mexico’s former President Vicente Fox, far friendlier to the United States than any of his predecessors, recalls ruefully that his counterpart George W. Bush simply could not understand the Mexican refusal to join the “coalition of the willing” in the invasion of Iraq. In his memoir, Fox says that sending Mexican troops into a foreign intervention goes against not only the nation’s written Constitution but also the constitution of the Mexicans’minds and souls.
A familiar refrain in popular Mexican love ballads is yo se perder. This translates as “I know loss,” or, with a certain savoir faire, “I know how to lose.”
In “Como la Flor,” Selena, the Tex-Mex chanteuse, sang yo se perder as a woman walking away from an unrequited love. In the more traditional Mexican ballad, “Volver, Volver,” the singer exclaims yo se perder while announcing she is flying back — ready or not, here I come! — into the arms of her amor perdido.
What is to be made of this? What happens when a gung-ho nation where “winning is the only thing” meets a culture that has elevated losing to an elaborate art form? Do not be so certain about your predictions, and remember: Amor vincit omnia.