On the battleground, producers may catch flak from both sides. In photo: KERA films Mexican reenacters. (Photo: George Stone.)
Producers must tell Mexican war from two viewpoints, far apart
Originally published in Current, Aug. 24, 1998
By Diana Claitor
Mention the U.S.-Mexican War and most Americans react with a glazed, questioning look. Mexicans, on the other hand, remember. Passionately.
"It is a scar for them," says Sylvia Komatsu, executive producer of the new four-hour television series, The U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848), coming from PBS on Sept. 13 and 14.
Komatsu had that fact brought home to her once again when she discussed air dates with the Mexico City educational station Canal Once, which collaborated on the series with the producing station, KERA in Dallas/Ft. Worth. The Mexican broadcasters told her they wouldn't dream of airing it on the dates PBS chose, since they coincide with the 150th anniversary of the American invasion.
"They said it would simply be too painful for their viewers on Sept. 13 and 14--the dates when the U.S. army marched into Mexico City," says Komatsu. Each year on the 13th, she notes, the president of Mexico conducts a solemn ceremony at Chapultapec Castle to honor the "boy cadets" who died in hand-to-hand combat with the American invaders.
Airing the series would "pour more salt into our open wounds," says Magdalena Acosta, director of foreign program acquisition at Canal Once. In Mexico, the series won't air until November.
When you mention the war south of the border, even a Mexican with a limited education will say, "Oh, the war where the Gringos stole our territory," according to Senior Producer Paul Espinosa. "The Americans say, 'Which war?'"
The series looks at a critical conflict in the history of both nations. "It redrew the map of North America, and forged a new identity for many, especially Mexican-Americans," says Komatsu. Some 12,000 or 13,000 Americans and perhaps several times as many Mexicans died in the war--the first war the U.S. fought outside of its own territory.
The war was initiated when the U.S., already having border disputes with Mexico, sent 4,000 troups to the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo as it is known in Mexico). On the heels of that move, U.S. President James Polk proposed that Mexico sell its northern half to the U.S. Hostilities commenced and the U.S. crossed the border to occupy Matamoras. Soon after, U.S. warships attacked Veracruz and landed troops, who fought their way overland to Mexico City. Santa Anna led a defending army, but the Mexicans were overwhelmed. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, virtually dictated by the U.S., Mexico agreed to sell its northern territories to the victor for $15 million.
For Mexico, the war was a traumatic event that resulted in the loss of many lives, half its territory and a great deal of pride and hope for the future. At the same time, Komatsu says, it brought together a people who still were struggling with what it meant to be Mexican, just 20 years after achieving independence from Spain.
The U.S.-Mexican War is the centerpiece of what KERA calls a binational education project. The four 60-minute programs will be broadcast here in English, Sept. 13 and 14, with English dubbed over the Spanish speakers. (A version with the original Spanish interviews will be available to viewers with stereo TV sets, on their SAP channels.) Komatsu says the series, with the narration translated into Spanish, will air on Canal Once, XEIPN-TV in Mexico City.
Americans and Mexicans watching this series, Komatsu says, can learn something of how and why the two neighbors continue to have such a problematic relationship.
THE CONFLICTS AROSE AGAIN as soon as the writers and producers began working with the advisory committee of U.S. and Mexican historians. They found themselves in something of a scholarly war--with its own skirmishes, pre-emptive strikes and sometimes full-fledged battles.
The discussions of the three Mexican and 10 American scholars (including three Mexican-American and one Native American) were "contentious" and "intense," Komatsu recalls. While much of the arguing was "across the border," so to speak, there were also serious disagreements among the American scholars, and the Mexican historians fought most vehemently among themselves, according to several participants. Ron Tyler, director of the Texas State Historical Society, says simply, "This is a war that is very hard to be objective about."
The advisers were eminent, knowledgeable historians, he says, but still citizens of nations, with all the accompanying loyalties and biases. At one point, Tyler says an angry adviser simply said, "I'm not going to consider that," and refused to listen to any further discussion of one point.
Thus, the advisers provided no easy answers to the filmmakers, whose goal was not to cast blame for the war, but to present a "neutral" narrative.
"We let the point of view come from the quotes from historical characters and the historians themselves," says Komatsu.
One of the most vocal advisers, Josefina Zoraida Vazquez, disagrees. Vazquez, who is professor of history and chair of the Center of Historical Studies at El Colegio de Mexico, says that an American bias comes through loud and clear, from all parts of the documentary.
"I recognize the good intentions of Sylvia Komatsu and most of the staff, and that it is difficult to overcome 150 years of trying to justify an unjust war," says Vazquez. She says she wished the Mexican advisers had been able to influence the makers of the series more.
"In general, [the filmmakers] portray the standard U.S. view of the war," she says. "That is unfortunate, because most of the sophisticated university text books on U.S. history acknowledge U.S. provocation of the war." The provocation she refers to was the presence of U.S. troops on the border, which led to border skirmishes that were used to justify the American invasion.
Vazquez says that although "completely outnumbered by the Americans," the Mexican advisers did manage to influence the documentarians at the last session. It was then that Vazquez urged that they quote a letter written by the wife of the U.S. Commissioner to Mexico in which the American speaks of feeling "shame" for his part in the attack on Mexico.
"I insisted on including a good part of it, but Sylvia chose only a few lines," says Vazquez, pointing to this as evidence that she was not listened to.
Komatsu points to the same incident as an example of how much the Mexican scholars did contribute to the series.
"She urged us to include it and we chose the lines that make the main point," says Komatsu.
Producer and writer Rob Tranchin says he believes the Mexican advisers had a strong influence. Because of their input, he says, the script was written and rewritten a number of times in order to present their perspectives.
"I can't think of another series that tries to present two points of view, and that's what I'm proudest of. This series stands squarely across the border--which took time, money and sweat ... a tremendous amount! It's certainly easier to tell a story from one point of view," he says.
The Mexican scholars were not the only ones dissatisfied with the balance of information--or, in some cases, balance of power.
"Many of the U.S. scholars feel we didn't include everything they wanted," says Espinosa. "And they think the legacy section is told from the Mexican perspective," he says, referring to the last section of the fourth hour, which discusses long-lasting effects of the war.
Espinosa and Komatsu say much of the dissatisfaction stems from the fact that the advisers are academics who often have unrealistic expectations of television.
"We try to meet the highest standards, but this is not a book," says Espinosa, the writer and producer of many previous projects for PBS including "The Hunt for Pancho Villa" for The American Experience. "We can make the most important points, but their scope is broad and deep. Our task is not to take one person's point of view and tell that only; we have to take in everything they say and then relate it to the audience in understandable terms."
THE MAKERS OF THE SERIES found it necessary to include a lot of basic information and "pre-history" in order to set the stage for the actual story of the war, since many Americans not only knew little about the war, but confused it with other wars.
"For example, many Americans assume this war has something to do with the Spanish-American War, which happened at the turn of the century, 60 years later," Espinosa says.
Other Americans erroneously assume the U.S.-Mexican War has something to do with the battle of the Alamo, which occurred a decade before, during Texans' fight for independence from Mexico.
Further, a large number of Americans apparently do not realize that the land comprising California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and parts of three other states was once part of Mexico; fewer know that Mexico sold the land only under duress.
All in all, the filmmakers had to teach a lot more history than most historical documentaries do.
"It was a challenge to keep the narrative development along with that [informative aspect]," says producer/writer Tranchin. "We didn't want a spotty, superficial program--especially since a lot of TV history is bad history." Tranchin says one major goal was to provide as much "societal and historical context" as possible, to help the American audience move beyond a superficial take on the circumstances.
For example, most Yankees, accustomed to stable government, tend to look at the disorganization and disunity in the Mexico of that time as a sign of ineptitude--and that attitude, over the years, has crystallized and contributed to a negative stereotyping of Mexicans. To counter that attitude and provide a context, Tranchin says, the series portrays Mexican society at that time, when it was emerging from Spanish domination.
"It had only been a nation for 20 years," Tranchin says. "And Mexico was still operating with a medieval organization and government it had inherited from the Spanish." The Mexicans were simply hamstrung by their own governing structure--even to the point of not being able to react in their own defense at times. For example, when the people of Veracruz, suffering under a devastating artillery bombardment from U.S. warships, asked for help from the central government, there was a political revolt in progress in Mexico City, and no help was sent.
Contextual information is also important for another reason, says Native American scholar R. David Edmunds, professor of history at the University of Texas at Dallas. Americans often jump to the conclusion the Mexican soldiers didn't fight well or that there was little resistance.
"The Mexican army was poorly equipped; many were barefoot and hungry, but they fought valiantly," says Edmunds. "This is something people in the U.S., especially Mexican-Americans, need to know. The Mexicans fought well and they fought their hearts out."
"This damned thing should be purchased by every school district in Texas and the Southwest," says Edmunds. "And if one little Mexican-American kid down in Victoria can see this and realize his ancestors were brave and fought with heart, it will all be worth it."
IN THE SEVEN YEARS since Komatsu began writing proposals for the series, raising money has taken a great deal of time. Corporations steered clear of backing the project. "They didn't want to be associated with such a controversial subject," says Komatsu. Without help from 18 private foundations, NEH and CPB/PBS, the series would never have been made. One of the latest grants--$100,000 for promotion and outreach--was announced just this month by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Komatsu and Espinosa also hope that The U.S.-Mexican War also signals another step in changing attitudes toward the heritage of the Southwest. Espinosa and others involved in historical projects mention a "bias" of the mass media and academic establishment of the Northeast against subjects related to the western and southwestern parts of the U.S.
"The history we're often taught tells the story of this country as only an east-to-west affair of English settlers moving into largely vacant lands," Komatsu says. "In reality, the history of the U.S. also includes a deeply rooted Spanish and Mexican past. I'm constantly amazed by how narrow-minded some people on the East Coast can be. If it happened where they live, it's national history; if it happened elsewhere, it's regional history."
Sometimes those in decision-making positions haven't heard of an important issue or event in the West, and that leads them to devalue it, says Espinosa.
"It's always a battle to get them interested in a story about California or New Mexico because that's not a "national story," he says, although he feels the situation is slowly improving.
In the end, however, one question remains: How will viewers on both sides of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo react to the series? Many connected with the series anticipate that Americans, especially Texans, will be unhappy with hearing the Mexican view of history.
"This series takes a far more objective approach than we were taught in school here," says Tyler of the state historical society. "For one thing, it presents the idea prevalent in Mexico that this is the War of Yankee aggression and to call it anything else is wrong."
Komatsu notes that when KERA showed a short promotional spot last spring, there were immediate and angry calls from Dallas viewers that began with phrases like, "My ancestors fought the Mexicans at San Jacinto ... how dare you . . ."
Tranchin hopes Americans in all parts of the country, who may be in the habit of associating Mexican-Americans with illegal immigration, will see how much more complex the issues are.
"Americans seeing this are going to realize that these Mexicans didn't come to the U.S.--the U.S. came to them," he says.
And they will also catch a glimpse, says Edmunds, of the way Native Americans were caught between the colonizing forces of Spain and then Mexico, then the U.S.
In Mexico, viewers may be surprised to learn about the many prominent American leaders who opposed the war, but other parts of the series, especially the excerpts from the diaries and letters of "invaders," may well offend sensibilities.
Vazquez, on the other hand, doesn't think anything in the series will disturb Mexican viewers very much. "We are used by now to American attitudes," she says.
However, for Magdalena Acosta of Canal Once in Mexico City, the series did have a painful impact. "I was deeply moved--tears came to my eyes," says Acosta, whose ancestors fought the invaders. "My feeling was of sadness and frustration. In my view, the war was tragic for Mexico because we were, for many reasons which are mentioned in the series, unable to resist the American aggression."
The program may have the largest single impact, however, upon Mexican-Americans. Tranchin attended a preview in San Antonio with a largely Mexican-American audience and was struck by the "intensely emotional reaction to the legacy section." In that final section, viewers get an idea of what it was like for the approximately 100,000 citizens of Mexico who happened to be living in the areas at the time of the takeover. These were people, he says, who lost their motherland overnight and became, in the eyes of many, "second-class citizens."
"Here the series makes it clear for the first time that the war between the U.S. and Mexico was the birth event for the Mexican-American people," Tranchin says.
By looking again at this history--or for the first time, in the case of many Americans--the two nations may make progress toward the goal so eloquently expressed in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo:
"Hereafter ... the two Nations ... do promise to each other, that they will endeavor in the most sincere and earnest manners, to settle the differences ... in the spirit of peace and good neighbourship."
Diana Claitor is a freelance writer who lives in Austin, Tex., and a former PBS staffer.
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