The martyrdom of Mexico’s valiant Niños Héroes (Children Heroes) — Juan de la Barrera, Agustín Melgar, Vicente Suárez, Francisco Márquez, Fernando Montes de Oca and Juan Escutia — is and will not doubt remain eternally steeped in mystery and lore.
Immortalized in textbooks and folktales alike, their tragic sacrifice has become a symbol of national identity and political sovereignty, even though the exact details of how they died are blurred.
The six young military cadets were just teenagers at the time they lost their lives defending Chapultepec Castle during the final days of the Mexican-American War on Sept. 13, 1847.
It was a brutal war that would ultimately affect the fates of both nations and their bilateral relationship for many years to come.
For the Mexican people, the Mexican-American War was battle and national honor.
For the United States, it represented a vivid show of military superiority and manifest destiny.
Notwithstanding, many people in the United States were adamantly opposed to the invasion of Mexico, considering it a costly and unnecessary campaign during a period when military funding was diverting much-needed money for social development projects at home.
Many others Americans felt that the invasion of Mexico was immoral.
But it was the Battle of Chapultepec that would be the turning point in that brutal two-year struggle.
The cost for Mexico, which finally capitulated to the United States, was both demoralizing and territorially devastating.
As a consequence, Mexico eventually ceded over half the country’s territory to Washington.
The days leading up to the battle were decisive.
After opting against sending reinforcements to assist in the occupation of Mexico’s northwest territories, then-U.S. President James K. Polk dispatched an army by sea to Veracruz with the objective of seizing Mexico City and bringing an end to the gory military campaign that broke out after the 1945 annexation of the former Mexican territory of Texas.
The U.S. forces vastly outnumbered Mexico’s 3,400-strong battalion defending the capital, and decimated their opponents in a handful of hours.
But despite the dismal conquest by the northern invaders, several hundred Mexican men took a life-or-death stance to resist the storming of the castle, which was viewed as a principle point of defense for the city and a symbol of its continued independence from the foreign occupation.
The building was also the Mexican Military Academy, where young men were training to fight in the war.
In fact, about 200 of the soldiers defending the castle that day — half of the entire force, were teenage cadets.
In the dawn on the morning of Sept. 12, U.S. troops charged the castle, throwing ladders against its stone walls and pouring over the sides, forcing the Mexican general commanding the battalion to sound the retreat.
But six of those young cadets refused to follow their leader’s order and decided to stay and fight to the end to protect the Mexican flag that waved above the castle.
According to historical accounts, one of the cadets, Juan Escutia, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and threw himself from the castle’s ramparts to keep it from being captured by the invaders.
The others apparently died at the hands of the U.S. soldiers.
The surviving cadets — some as young as 13-years-old — were taken captive by U.S. forces and spent the remaining days of the campaign as prisoners of war.
The Battle of Chapultepec and Mexico’s illustrious Niños Héroes are now a part of the country’s collective memory, and although the specifics of what happened on that historic day are still somewhat unclear, the bravery and fortitude of those six young cadets have helped to shape the nation’s identity forever.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]