15 November 2009

War on Display

Every year on November 11, Americans observe Veterans Day to honor military veterans, particularly those who have served in the United States forces. I had always felt detached from this holiday because none of my relatives or close friends had ever served in the American military. In fact, my great-grandfather on my paternal grandmother’s side, Luis Aguilar, served just prior to the United States entering World War I – he fought for Mexico and against the Americans.

According to his journal, in April of 1914, the American Marines landed in the Port of Veracruz to intercept several German ships transporting weapons to the Mexican federal government, which had been taken through a coup by Victoriano Huerta. It was then that my great-grandfather realized that the American government wanted Venustiano Carranza and his revolutionaries to win. Luis Aguilar and his young friends eagerly joined the army because that’s what they were taught as children – same as American children – to love their country first. So off they went to fight for their government under Huerta’s presidency, thus fighting off the invading Americans.

He wrote in his journal, “How lovely it would have been to hear the shout ‘the soldier Luis Aguilar died for his country!’” In Veracruz, as he described it, he could have easily died from the many plagues and diseases brought on by the thick vegetation in the intensely hot, tropical climate. But he never made it to the actual port, and his troops only got as far as the surrounding areas. As he claimed in his journal, had the American troops been ordered to advance further inland from the Port of Veracruz, my great-grandfather would have been one of the first casualties and wouldn’t have been alive to write his stories.

Twelve years later, during the Cristero War (1926-1929), my great-grandfather on my maternal grandmother’s side, Tirso Gurrola, fought as a counter-revolutionary to overthrow President Plutarco ElĂ­as Calles who had strategically aligned himself with the winners of the Mexican Revolution. Calles was deeply atheist, and as a devout Catholic, my great-grandfather fought not for his country – but for his Church. Two years before my grandmother died, I was fortunate to record her memories of her father’s stories.

Twice, Tirso Gurrola escaped capture and imminent death. The first time, he had been taken in for interrogation. He identified himself with a fictitious name, but still suspecting him, the government officials searched his clothing to prove he was Tirso Gurrola. Knowing he had his wedding ring in his pocket with his wife’s name engraved on it – Aurelia Gurrola – he convinced the officials to let him first use the bathroom before being searched. He hid the ring in a bar of soap while washing his hands.

The second time, when my grandmother’s family decided to temporarily escape Durango, my great-grandmother Aurelia and a brave family friend came up with a scheme to sneak Tirso out of their hacienda in the village of Tapias. They tied him up so that he was compact and lifeless like a pole, wrapped him up, and placed him on the back seat floorboard of the car.

Aurelia’s brave friend was a strong Mexican American woman from Detroit, Michigan, and when the government officials asked about the wrapped pole, she explained that she was a photographer from the United States. She told the officials that if they dared un-wrap the package, they would have to make themselves responsible for the damaged film. Not willing to take responsibility, but still skeptical, they kicked the “camera.” And Tirso must have made himself stiff as a board, because they let Aurelia and her friend go.

Several years ago, I researched the archives of the Mexican Congress and found the following from the November 25, 1926 legislative session (translated): “The 2nd of October, the Chief of Military Operations in the state of Durango communicated that in the town of Santiago Bayacora, a rebel movement had taken place. A gang of approximately one hundred men was led up a nearby mountain by Knight of Columbus Cristero rebel Tirso Gurrola.

[By the end of October, most of the Cristero rebels had been killed or captured and] Gurrola's rebellion had completely dispersed. Tirso Gurrola had fled and his whereabouts were unknown. In the state of Durango, the Government continues to search for dispersed rebels -- the only rebels that remain in the entire country -- with the certainty than in a few days, they will be completely exterminated.” My great-grandfather had indeed fled to the United States via Eagle Pass, Texas, with his wife, and two sons (my grandmother and her younger sister fled separately pretending to be the maid’s daughters), until it was safe enough to return to Mexico.

Through the stories passed down in my family, I’ve learned the intimacies of two Mexican wars. But I’ve never had the chance to get a personal perspective from American wars. And then I discovered a treasure trove of American military history in our very own city of Austin: the Brigadier General John C. L. Scribner Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry, whose mission is to “tell the story of the Texas Military Forces from 1823 through the present and into the future, support the mission of the Texas Military Forces, honor our veterans, educate our fellow citizens, promote esprit d’corps among the men and women of the Texas Military Forces, and inspire our youth to serve.”

Located on West 35th Street just west of Mopac, the Museum resides in Building 6, which was built in 1918 as a mess hall complete with a bakery and kitchen facilities. The exhibitions begin with the Texas War for Independence (1835-1836) and extend through all major conflicts, including the 1846 Mexican War with the United States.

The Military Forces Museum is slated for a major renovation, but I suggest visiting now while the artifacts are still contained in a plain un-museum type setting, and they can be enjoyed in quiet and solitude. The Museum and its archives house more than 10,000 artifacts, 6,000 books, 20,000 historic photographs, and more than three dozen history military vehicles and artillery pieces. In the two times that I have been to the Museum, late on a Sunday afternoon, we were the only people there a majority of the time.

The phase I renovations are structural (roof repairs and electrical upgrade), but the phase II and phase III renovations are more aesthetic, including the construction of exhibit space and design of new exhibits. While these later-phase renovations will certainly help the Military Forces Museum join the ranks of higher-end museums such as the Blanton and the Bob Bullock, I always feel that with too much polish, you lose some of the charming quirks: the creaky floors, the eerie drafts, and the mysterious corners.

War is gritty and complicated, and it’s difficult to absorb by reading history books, let alone watching Hollywood movies with romanticized imagery, or by going to museums with spectacularly designed exhibitions. The reality of war cannot be neatly categorized or beautifully displayed. The best presentations of war are the personal accounts – and if you’re lucky and they are still alive, from your family and friends.

To read the published version of the article, check out a coffeehouse near you for this month's issue of TODO Austin!

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