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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Our Most Forgotten – Yet Very Important – War

My friend – and probably yours – Dr. John Belohlavek published another book a couple of years ago, but only recently got around to giving me a copy.  Called Patriots, Prostitutes, and Spies:  Women and the Mexican War, it's about that war of the late 1840s.  As John says, it probably is America's most forgotten conflict, even though it was a congressionally declared war.  It shouldn't be forgotten, especially because of our increasingly large Mexican population.  It's also especially important for Floridians because the Mexican War is closely connected to our wars against the Seminoles.  Professional army men under General Zachary Taylor (for whom downtown's Zack Street is named) temporarily gave up here, heading to Mexico and a new foe.


This was soon after James Knox Polk was elected president in 1844 -- and yes, another downtown street is named for him, as well as Polk County.  Polk also was a distant ancestor to Hubby, although not nearly as good a guy as my man.  And I should add that his wife, Sarah Childress Polk, was the first first lady who had some higher education.  While I'm at it, I guess I'll add that Zach's wife, Margaret Taylor, and his daughter, Ann Wood, lived here at Fort Brooke and are credited with nursing him and other soldiers through malaria.  And there is a Scott Street downtown, too, for Winfield Scott, the general who ultimately triumphed by capturing Mexico City.


But back to President Polk.  Historians sometimes portray him as the only president who fulfilled all of his campaign promises – but then as now, not everyone approved of every promise.  This was especially the case with war against Mexico.  Anti-slavery forces in the North saw the war as not only unnecessary, but also as a conspiracy to enlarge territory for cotton production and other enterprises dependent on unfree labor.  Although this message resounded with some, especially New Englanders, most Americans favored the pro-war side. 


They "remembered the Alamo," the 1836 San Antonio siege in which Mexicans slaughtered largely defenseless men led by former Congressman Davy Crockett of Tennessee.  Sarah Bowman, whose surname is variously spelled, including a French rendition, probably also was from Tennessee.  The most famous woman of the time, she was called "The Heroine of Fort Brown," today's Brownsville, Texas.  Tall and muscular, she never bothered to disguise her gender.  She also was openly sexual, once auctioning herself off as a wife to meet the army's rules.  Although she didn't stay with that husband, she stayed with the army throughout the war.  Men so admired her that she ultimately was buried with military honors in San Francisco's prestigious Presidio. 


And yes, we had semi-globalism even back then, as men with no personal dog in the hunt nonetheless ran off to Mexico.  More than a third of the enlistees were recent immigrants, mainly from Ireland; young and often illiterate, they sought adventure and fortune.  Ditto with some women.  Less noted, but probably at least as valuable, was merchant Ann McClarmonde Chase.  Because she was born in Ireland, she used her British citizenship to stay in Tampico when husband, the American consul, was forced to evacuate. 


She was one of several women deeply involved in diplomacy.  In fact, despite his commitment to this "Manifest Destiny" land grab, the Polk administration spent months waiting for diplomats to avert war.  That worked with British Canada and the Oregon Territory, but not with Mexico.  John does an excellent job of original research to profile women who would have been considered ambassadors had they been men.  Anglo women fluent in Spanish, their activities in both Mexico and Washington exactly fit a State Department job description. 


Women also were journalists for major newspapers.  They not only reported news that no one else knew, but also shaped attitudes on the war.  Others spied – very effectively, as women can move about in social circles and charm men to obtain valuable military and political information.  Their heads swelled by attention from "sweethearts" they assume are clueless, men throughout time have given away important clues that make a difference in battle.  I'm not going to detail these women, however, because I hope you will read about them yourself. 


So despite diplomacy, the war came – and it was much greater than most of us realize today.  About half of the nation's professional army went to Mexico, and along with many more recent volunteers, about 12,000 American men died.  Mexico lost many more, including countless children and women, and with rape too often a precursor to death.  In addition to this human loss, Mexico was forced to cede fully half of its land, from Texas to California.  Although it lasted less than two years, the Mexican War had a profound impact and should be much better taught than it is.  All Americans, including our recent Hispanic immigrants, should understand the complex history of Spanish speakers in this vast land.


Sad to Say or Not, Sex Sells


All of the above was political/military background for John's points on social history and especially women's history.  Writing women's history, of course, is much harder than just plain history because you have to know all of it before you can place women in context – and you have to be especially wary of those who gleefully will pounce on any error.  But talking about women – and therefore almost inherently, about sex -- is a good way to get readers' attention, especially young readers whose hormones are surging.  John didn't particularly aim this book at classrooms, but it nonetheless provides many sexual scenarios from soldiers who were about the same age as today's high-school and college students. 


Quoting from soldiers' letters and diaries, as well as from the dime novels that became popular during the war, we learn a lot about soldiers' attempts to turn fantasy into reality. We learn about women who ran brothels and women who lustily inhabited them – and we also learn about upper-class women who stood at windows and watched would-be lovers parade by, but never spoke to them.  We go to fandangos, where everyone dances, including pregnant women.  We see shock and awe when American men realize that Mexican women swim nude.


Mostly, for me, the book reinforces what I first became aware of many years ago, when I read about California's Gertrude Atherton.  She was a bestselling author of the late 19th century and the great-grandniece of Benjamin Franklin – but when she married a wealthy man of Spanish descent, her mother-in-law tried to prevent the young bride from reading.  With the exception of a few talented boys who were favored by priests, the culture code strongly discouraged literacy.  From Spain through its New World colonies and on to the Philippines, neither the Catholic Church nor the aristocrats who controlled the economy wanted the masses to be educated.  That was true here in colonial Florida, too. During centuries of Spanish rule, there was no equivalent of the New England schoolhouse, nor even a newspaper.


And yet, although Hispanic women were limited in their educational, political, and property rights, they were much freer than Anglo women in ways that made more day-to-day difference.  They freely danced, drank alcohol, and – to the horror of most American men – smoked tobacco in great quantities.  They gambled, with upper-class women playing cards in homes, while others played in casinos or saloons.  Indeed, most of the women-run brothels that John examines also featured gambling – with apparently complete equality for female players.


The most visible difference between Anglo and Spanish women was in clothing – or lack thereof.  American men in Mexico repeatedly remarked on the non-existence of undergarments and the looseness of cotton dresses, especially at the bosom.  Anglo women arriving in the Southwest were horrified by the relatively short skirts and the lack of proper corseting – until they experienced enough desert heat to understand why Mexican women dressed the way they did.  Then many took up that style themselves, shocking the next group of new arrivals.  And so change is made.




·      John's book mentions Mexican women selling candied squash to American soldiers eager to eat it.  I'd never heard of this; have you?  Squash grows well in hot, dry climates, but there are so many kinds of squash that it's hard to know where to begin to experiment.  Let me know if you do.

·      Have you noticed that Costa Rica is the only Central American nation that no one flees?  Back in the days of Richard Nixon, Hubby and I researched where we might go if Nixon became the despot he intended to be.  We wanted a warm climate, but somehow democracies fail to flourish in warmth.  Costa Rica ranked highest for us because it had no army and spent the vast majority of its budget on education.  This is ­the clue, guys.  No one is a refugee from a nation in which they are happy.

·      Same point, different setting.  I've already forgotten which Third World nation paraded its new leaders on TV the other day – and all of the faces who crowded into camera range were male.  Has no one told them what social scientists have known for years?  The best predictor of peace and prosperity is the status of women.

·      Remember wannabe tycoon Leona Helmsley and her declaration that "only little people pay taxes?"  A male wannabe also in New York at the same time practiced the same business philosophy – and now he lives in the White House, and we haven't seen his tax records.  Think also about Martha Stewart, who was imprisoned for an offense that lots of Wall Street guys commit on a regular basis.  But now that we have some highly-placed female prosecutors and judges, I expect to see change. 

·      The greater number of female federal judges is largely due to Jimmy Carter.  Although he never got a chance to name anyone to the Supreme Court, he appointed vastly more women to the federal bench than any previous president.  Between Calvin Coolidge in 1928 and Gerald Ford in 1976, seven presidents had named eight women – and during his four years in office, Carter appointed 36.  That is making a difference.



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