September 13th is celebrated in Mexico as Día de los Niños Héroes, “the day of the boy heroes”, a holiday dedicated to the Battle of Chapultepec which occurred near the end of the Mexican–American War of 1847. This is peculiar because the Battle of Chapultepec was not an overwhelming success for the Mexican army. During the course of the battle, several companies of American infantry troops stormed Chapultepec Castle, a fort which guarded the western entrance to Mexico City and served as the Mexican military academy. As the Americans occupied the castle, (which was defended by cadets from the military academy as well as Mexican regulars), six young Mexican military cadets refused to fall back when the Mexican commander ordered retreat. They fought to the death and, according to legend, the last cadet left alive, Juan Escutia, grabbed the flag and lept from the castle (so that the colors would not fall into enemy hands). The castle’s fall permitted the subsequent occupation of Mexico City and hastened Santa Anna’s end (his last battle came less than a month later at Huamantla).
Despite the battle’s outcome, the cadet martyrs of Chapultepec suited the Mexican national consciousness and were lionized as heroes. One of the socio-political tensions which had dogged the Mexican army throughout the conflict was the distance between senior officers, who tended to be Spanish royalists at heart, and junior officers who embraced fiery republican principles. The boy heroes were seen as a newer braver generation of Mexican officers inspired by the egalitarian and romantic ideals of the French Revolution.
The grave of the 6 cadets was the scene of an unexpected foreign policy twist when President Henry Truman stopped there on his 1947 Mexico trip in order to plant a wreath. The Mexican public interpreted the gesture as one of apology and bathed Truman in adulation. When queried by American reporters, Truman, with typical brevity simply stated that “Brave men don’t belong to any one country. I respect bravery wherever I see it.” Of course a cynical historian might imagine Truman was trying to ensure Mexico stayed in the American fold during the Cold War—and accomplished his aim with a ten dollar wreath and a well-turned phrase.
The boy heroes are still celebrated with a popular (albeit unofficial) holiday. In 1952 their remains were moved to a large and somewhat florid public monument crafted of white marble by sculptor Ernesto Tamaríz in Chapultepec Park. Looking at the soaring columns dedicated to 6 cadets whose inability to obey orders cost them their lives it is difficult to conclude that the ancient Mesoamericans admiration for human sacrifice does not still live on.