America has form with Mexico.
Northern Mexico was a savage place in the early nineteenth century. Largely desert, cut by canyons and mountainous, theoretically ruled by a government one thousand miles to the south which often enough could not impose its will on its own backyard, it was roamed by bands of Comanche and Apache who had never submitted to anyone and existed in a state of war with the few scattered towns. Those towns defended themselves as best they could; some were military colonies founded by the Spaniards, others survived by hiring mercenaries. This violent anarchy is unforgettably depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying novel Blood Meridian.
In the 1820s, after Mexico had wrested its independence from Spain, the Mexican government offered land in a north-eastern corner of the country to immigrant settlers, in the hope that they would create a buffer against the indigenous tribes. Settlers flooded in from the neighbouring United States. They did not adapt well to Mexico; they despised its laws and disliked its centralised government, and it became clear that some of them wished to import the slave economy of the southern USA (Mexico had abolished slavery). In time Mexico stopped the settler programme, but by then it was too late. The settlers wanted independence, and drove Mexican troops out of the state.
Mexico would not allow Tejas (later Texas) to secede, and sent troops to re-take the territory from the Americans, who had fortified themselves in an old mission, the Alamo. The assault, under General Santa Anna, was carried out with a lack of restraint that rallied more Americans to the Texan cause. Six weeks later the Alamo was “avenged” at the battle of San Jacinto, which routed the Mexican army. Santa Anna, captured, agreed to Texas’s independence but then, released, rescinded his agreement on the grounds that it had been given under duress. Its status remained disputed.
In 1845 America annexed Texas. Mexico had warned that this would lead to war. In 1846, an American provocation in border territory led to a skirmish, and war followed.
For Mexico the war was calamitous. At the end of eighteen months of fighting, fully half of Mexico’s territory passed into American hands, signed away in return for 15 million dollars by the incompetent Santa Anna, who was now President. Thus America acquired the present states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and most of Colorado. This was in addition, of course, to Texas.
There were protests, in the heart of the nation that committed it, against this fantastic piece of armed robbery. Ulysses S. Grant regarded the war “as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Emerson said victory over Mexico would “poison” America. Thoreau was briefly jailed for refusing to pay taxes to support the war, and wrote On Civil Disobedience as a response. Several hundred Irish soldiers defected from the US Army to form the St Patrick’s Battalion and fought alongside the Mexicans.
If you stroll through Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, you will see six marble columns, each surmounted by a bronze eagle, in an amphitheatre. This monument commemorates the Niños Héroes, six military cadets who disobeyed the order to surrender and fought to the last. One, it is said, threw himself off the cliff of Chapultepec wrapped in the Mexican flag. It is very rhetorical, very Mexican, and very sad.
Every Mexican knows this history and, to my knowledge, very few Americans. But it is impossible to understand the way America is viewed in Mexico without knowing it.
When, therefore, Donald Trump announced he was going to build “a beautiful wall” along the US/Mexican border, Mexicans could have been forgiven for thinking that it was 171 years too late. They might also have reflected that Mexico would be a better place if there had been a wall keeping out American guns, American Hallowe’en customs, American fizzy drinks, American sliced white bread, American interference in Mexican internal affairs, American interference in Mexican foreign policy, America’s “drugs war,” American subsidised maize (which has destroyed Mexican agriculture) and mass American immigration to San Miguel de Allende. But they are a polite and proud people, and will not say so.
Nevertheless there will – or will there? another day, another policy – be a wall, and it has to look like something, and so some unfortunate charged with making the President’s whims reality has invited designs. Some of them appeared in a fascinating spread in The Guardian on April 10. They are a mixed bag, and a few seek to upstage their master’s chauvinism by downright barbarity. Thus, one of them incorporates into its design a trench filled with nuclear waste. Another, trying its best, combines solar panels with an affectionate look back at Stalag Luft 4. There are designs that answer to Trump’s vulgarity with fake battlements and resemble a crazed wedding cake. There are hi-tech dystopias with barbed wire and concrete.
But – take heart! – there are others that subvert and mock their remit. There is one that consists entirely of three million hammocks, strung end-to-end. This deserves a Nobel Prize. Admittedly it will not keep anything out. But still less so will the design that refuses to grasp Trump’s basic concept, and depicts an open, sunlit landscape of fields and woods and soaring eagles. This is a place that belongs to neither country, but is Otra Nation. It’s beautiful: it is beautiful precisely because it is not a wall. Will Trump understand this? No, he cannot.
And of course the Mexicans have a design. (They have many, but the Guardian page shows only one.) It is splendid: it is bright pink. I don’t think Trump will like it.1 It is subversive also in its breadth: in the photograph one cannot see the other side of it. In that case, it is not a wall, is it? A wall must have two sides. A wall you can walk across widthways is…
At this point something that had been nudging me for the past ten minutes came out and showed itself. It’s a science fiction story by Arthur C. Clarke. I had long forgotten both the title, The Wall of Darkness, and the author, but Google helped. It is as follows:
There exists a star-system consisting entirely of one sun and one planet, and on the planet a gigantic wall has been built. It completely encircles and blocks access to the southern pole. It is believed that it bars the way to some terror that should never be glimpsed; that to see it would bring madness. The wall appears impossible to scale; the region is shrouded in perpetual semi-darkness and is very cold. One day someone braver than the rest decides to find out what is on the other side.
He constructs a scaffolding and climbs up. At the top, he can see nothing but the wall, stretching away into darkness. He starts to walk.
He walks and walks. It gets darker and colder. He is leaving the sun behind. Soon it is far distant, as if at the end of a tunnel. He goes on walking.
After a long time, through the blackness he sees ahead of him a pinprick of light. He is afraid, of course: there is a nameless terror dwelling here. But still he goes on walking, doggedly, like a sailor who might be about to fall over the edge of the world.
And that, in a sense, is what happens. For the pinprick of light grows bigger, and it is hanging in the middle of the sky, and as the darkness disperses he realises that he is walking towards the sun. But that is impossible. He has left the sun behind. He is walking away from it.
There is no nameless terror, we understand at the end of the story. The wall was built by a government, long ago, that wanted to protect its people from – or to deny them? – a knowledge that was deemed too difficult for them to cope with.
I will not tell you what that was and spoil a good story (still available in Arthur C. Clarke’s Collected Stories, Gollancz, 2001). I will only say that the universe is not the way Donald Trump thinks it is.
1 Clearly he didn’t, because it has now vanished from the website. It must be somewhere.