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War Is Hell of an Argument

“Why the hell an Aztec? What we’re talking about is a war fought from 1846 to 1848.”

The banner bugged Guy Weddington McCreary. Why, indeed, would an Aztec warrior serve as a symbol for the special exhibition titled “Culture y Cultura: How the U.S.-Mexican War Shaped the West”? The Aztecs’ first troubles with Cortez preceded the American Revolution by more than 250 years--and, remember, the United States itself is now only 222 years old.

McCreary’s objections to other imagery displayed at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage seemed more puzzling. He questioned the painting of a campesino holding a short-handled hoe. And he didn’t like the image of Cesar Chavez either, because he considers Chavez to be “a Communist"--a charge that may tell you more about McCreary’s politics than Chavez’s.

It wasn’t until McCreary and I were joined by Xavier Sibaja, the Autry’s marketing director, that we would learn that the exhibit, despite its misleading subtitle, is about the historical “development of Mexican American identity.”

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And so “Culture y Cultura” provides vivid reminders of a bloody history that is often overlooked and yet echoes profoundly amid our culture wars of today--over immigration, over language, over political power. (The exhibit, which runs though Sept. 7, is bilingual, of course.)

It is well worth seeing--even if you can’t have, as your guides, the likes of Guy McCreary, born in Glendale and raised in the San Fernando Valley, and Xavier Sibaja, born in East L.A. and raised in Mexico City.

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Theirs was an amiable debate, often punctuated by polite laughter. Both men are uncommonly well-versed in the history of American and Mexican relations.

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I asked McCreary to join me because I knew he had a particular point of view. A descendant of the Weddington family that helped make North Hollywood what it is today, McCreary is chairman of the Campo de Cahuenga Memorial Assn., keepers of the site (in what is now Universal City) where the Californios under Gen. Andres Pico capitulated to American Lt. Col. John C. Fremont. The war between the U.S. and Mexico continued elsewhere, but combat in California effectively came to an end.

When I asked the Autry for a guide, I had no idea that Sibaja would prove so appropriate--a walking, talking specimen of “Culture y Cultura.”

Sibaja told a story that would sadden history buffs. Among the prized artifacts on display is the actual Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the agreement that formally ended the war. The Autry considered touting this fact in the exhibit title--until research indicated that most people were unfamiliar with the phrase “Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.”

Fact is, however, a bunch of paperwork isn’t nearly as interesting as the tools, clothing, furniture and armaments on display. No piece is more striking than the 1845 dress uniform of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, complete with blue silk cape embroidered with gold. The uniform illustrates why the vainglorious Santa Anna, perhaps best known to Americans for his triumph at the Alamo, called himself “the Napoleon of the West.” An unpopular president in Mexico, he was nicknamed Don Demonio--"Sir Devil.”

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Sibaja pointed to a painting that he considers one of his favorite pieces. It depicts the Battle of Churubusco, a town near Mexico City where Mexican defenders met invading U.S. forces. Sibaja used to live there, not far from a church that still bears scars of the battle. Other paintings depict other battles, including the U.S. naval bombardment of Vera Cruz and a Mexican triumph in Texas. Few people today, Sibaja and McCreary agree, appreciate just how bloody this war was.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo effectively turned 100,000 Mexican nationals living in land ceded to the United States into the first Mexican Americans. Peace had been declared, but the quieter culture wars commenced and continue now.

There was a moment when McCreary talked about the importance of “assimilation.”

Sibaja’s personal history has made him a native-born American who speaks English with a thick accent. Before joining the Autry, he worked as a reporter at La Opinion and held various jobs promoting Latino arts.

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“When you say assimilation,” he asked McCreary, “just what do you mean?”

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McCreary’s answer included the phrase “pro-American” and essentially asked, if push came to shove, just whose side are you on? Sibaja politely suggested that the prospect of a U.S.-Mexico war today is extremely unlikely.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Sibaja has a higher opinion of the founder of the United Farm Workers than does McCreary. By any Mexican or Mexican American perspective, he said, “Cesar Chavez, was not a Communist.”

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McCreary’s idea of a hero, meanwhile, is President James K. Polk, commander-in-chief during the war with Mexico. Most historians figure Polk executed a less-than-noble war of economic plunder, but McCreary ranks him with Washington, who fought a revolution for freedom; Lincoln, who fought a war to end slavery; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who confronted the evils of Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan.

Sibaja mildly suggested that some people would disagree.

“For America, he was,” McCreary told me later for emphasis.

“For Mexico, he wasn’t,” he added, laughing. “I can tell you that right now.”

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Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to him at The Times’ Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311, or via e-mail at scott.harris@latimes.com. Please include a phone number.


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