With its archaisms, rhetorical figures and exalted poetic language, the majority of Mexicans have a hard time understanding the lyrics of their own national anthem, let alone to grasp the story it tells.
Why all that apocalyptic imagery?
While The United States’ national anthem is a victory song brimming with idyllic images, the Mexican national anthem was actually the result of a contest called by the government of President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
The winners were Jaime Nunó for the music and Francisco González Bocanegra. Legend has it that Bocanegra´s fianceé locked him in his room and told him that she wouldn’t let him out until he wrote something. Four hours later, the poet slid the pages under the door.
González Bocanegra won the contest, and his poem was declared the official anthem almost a century before America’s. His composition was a call to arms, a universal recruitment where each Mexican had been made a soldier by divine decree:
Mexicans, at the loud cry of war assemble!
Then your swords and your horses all prepare!
The Earth shall tremble to its center.
It was an allocution to all men in the event of international occupation. It was also an understandable fear when one considers that by the time the anthem was composed, the young nation had been invaded three times (Spain 1829, France 1838 and the US in 1846) in just three decades, and it would be again soon (when Bocanegra wrote, Mexico lived under constant intimidation from abroad).
The imagery is terrifying and mysterious. There are mentions of earthquakes, fields full of blood, battles, ruins, collapsing towers, sepulchers, in the middle of everything an archangel descending, and God in heaven writing the nation´s fate. Yet for the foreseeable future, Mexicans can only expect the blow of burning shrapnel and perhaps the hope to one day return to their homes, blood-stained, to the love of their wives and daughters.
It is an almost suicidal hymn, one which calls for the destruction of temples, palaces, and towers, and to live forever among ruins rather than accepting foreign domination. There is no possibility of victory, like in United States’ The Star Spangled Banner, only the consolation of martyrdom.
Sonically, it tells a story too. The sound of the Spanish rolled “rr” appears 21 times—guerra, hórrido, torre, derrumbe, torrente, terrible, horrísono, ruinas—like the sound of war drums or the distant roar of combat. Bizarrely, Bocanegra´s stanzas are full of mentions of things that people will hear when that day comes.
A Historical Legacy
A unique case, the Mexican anthem mentions two persons that actually existed in the recent past, Agustín de Iturbide, the first governor of independent Mexico, and the mysterious (to modern ears) “immortal warrior of Zempoala.” For anyone who heard the hymn when it premiered in Mexico City in 1854, there was no doubt who the mythical warrior was: Santa Anna, the then-current president.
It is ironic that the two men that got mentions in the anthem are considered anti-heroes today, to such an extent that those stanzas were removed by presidential decree and stopped being sung at civic events and schools.
The Mexican national anthem, a relic from the past, survived the upheavals, revolutions, and political changes that occurred since 1854. A more surprising accomplishment if we consider that there were attempts to replace it. President Benito Juárez completely ignored it. Emperor Maximilian commissioned the composition of a new hymn. During the Porfirio Díaz regime, it was bastardized to such a degree that it was played in bullfights and cantinas. After 1910, an attempt was made to introduce a new Hymn to the Revolution.
Today it is no longer in dispute but firmly established as an untouchable national symbol.
At various times there have been criticisms of its bellicose spirit and even proposals to write new lyrics more in line with the times. But, as philosopher José Vasconcelos once said, “a people that loses the necessary strength to shake off the yoke, ends up venerating it.” And the Mexican anthem is there to remind Mexicans that it is better to be dead than to knuckle under to un extraño enemigo.