Every September 13th, Mexico commemorates the ‘Niños Héroes,’ the young boy soldiers who fought bravely to defend their country. But why is the story still celebrated when there are so many inconsistencies?
It seemed that all was lost by September 12, 1847. The US Army had just defeated the Mexican army on the outskirts of Mexico City and were just a step away from taking the capital and winning the war fought over almost half of the Mexican territory. They only needed one last victory to be fully in and that was going to be decided on the famous hill of Chapultepec, not only the entrance to the center of the city but also a symbolic spot for the Mexican army. The Chapultepec Castle was the Military Academy and headquarters, and one of the main gunpowder warehouses of the country.
Coronel Nicolás Bravo, an Independence war hero, ordered the Academy to abandon the castle and asked for more troops to defend it on the skirts of the hill. Many cadets, who were between 12 and 19 years old, obeyed and left before the battle began, but 46 decided to stay and help defend their academy and country. After an entire day of constant bombings, finally, on the evening of September 13, the US army attacked the castle and eventually took it and the entire city, forcing the Mexican government to yield their territories.
Though the battle ended in defeat, to this day Mexico still honors and remembers the bravery the soldiers showed, especially the six young boy cadets who gave their lives to defend their country. Fernando Montes de Oca, Agustín Melgar, Vicente Suárez, Juan de la Barrera, Francisco Márquez, and Juan Escutia are considered to be some of the greatest national heroes, but were their deeds really that heroic or just a beautiful myth to encourage patriotism in Mexicans?
For starters, why do we only celebrate six of them when over forty cadets, joined by recently graduated soldiers, and staff of the academy stayed to defend the premises? Some of the renowned cadets celebrated each year do appear in contemporary documents of the time proving they indeed fought in the defense of Chapultepec Castle. But the story as we know it today and the one that all Mexicans are taught in schools appeared decades later during the thirty-year dictatorship of president Porfirio Díaz.
So, first things first, where they really children? Unlike Agustín Melgar who was actually only 12 when he died, most of the other cadets were actually in their late adolescence and early adulthood. Of course, for today's standards, adolescence kind of counts as childhood, but in those times, being 15 was old enough to be considered a man and take the responsibilities of adulthood, and most of the cadets were years over that age, all of them mainly 18, 19, and 20.
Now, though most of the names of these cadets do appear in some of the lists of the Military Academy, there are others that history deliberately decided to leave out of the heroic festivity. That is the case of Miguel Miramón, a fifteen-year-old cadet who after only four months of being enlisted fought until it was all over and he was taken as a prisoner of war. Eventually, after his liberation, he continued his career in the military and became a prominent Conservative politician. The reason he was left out of the honorary event: his well-known enmity with one of Mexico’s most beloved presidents, Benito Juárez.
But besides all this, what’s even more fantastical and unrealistic about this entire story is the particular case of one of the brave boy heroes, Juan Escutia. According to the story, when the young, twelve-year-old boy, saw it was all over, he heroically took the flag, wrapped himself with it, and threw himself from the heights to keep the enemy from taking the flag. To start with, there’s no record of anyone under the name of Juan Escutia being a student at the Military Academy. It’s presumed he was either a voluntary (which would be weird considering the situation) or a soldier from the San Blas Battalion sent to protect the castle. Either way, it’s proved the story is pretty much false based on mere basic physics. It’s just impossible he fell on the spot history claims based on the inclination and height of the castle itself.
Turns out that the story of the heroic soldier wrapping himself with the flag to protect it, came out in the first commemoration of the battle in 1878. A special poem was read in which each of the deeds of these boys was narrated. As it claims, when he was surrounded by the enemies, Agustín Melgar (and not Escutia) wrapped himself with the flag and knowing he had no other choice, bravely stood in front of the enemy and received their bullets. According to historians, this seems to be also false since the flag was eventually taken by the Americans and saved as a war trophy at West Point.
Like many other stories in Mexico’s history, it’s clear this one has more fantastical elements than hard facts. Besides that, the idea of the young boys who give their lives to their country is a resource we can find in basically all important moments of the history of the country, from the Niño Astillero during the Independence War, to the two young soldiers fighting during the Revolution. Point is, this isn’t even something exclusive to Mexican history, all countries have some fantasy in their national stories for one simple reason: they exalt our patriotic side. So, why do we still celebrate it when everybody knows the inconsistencies? The same answer; it’s one of the most inspiring stories in our history books.