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Who Was Juan Cano y Cano?

Juan Cano y Cano monument in Mérida, Mexico
Credit: Keith Paulson-Thorp

Who was Juan Cano y Cano? It’s September in Mexico, and that means preparations are under way to celebrate Independence Day, when Mexico cast off the yoke of colonial oppression. Patriotic street decorations have gone up downtown, kids will be lighting fireworks nightly for the next few weeks, musical ensembles will be rehearsing works by Mexican composers and chefs will be showcasing their own versions of chiles en nogada.

My fondest memory of last September came three days before Independence Day. On September 13th I was taking trash to the street and noticed paramedic and police vehicles, and countless cars. It was obviously a big deal, so I headed over to the park to see what was afoot.

A large tent had been erected in front of the monument to Juan Crisostomo Cano y Cano, one of many monuments in the park, including some to poets or writers, such as the revered José Díaz Bolio. This is the largest monument in the park. We had passed it dozens of times, and there is a school named in his honor across the street, but I never gave it any real attention. But today was the 170th anniversary of Cano’s death during the “U.S. invasion of Mexico,” the enormous land grab that in the U.S. is politely referred to as the “Mexican-American War.”

The governor of Yucatán and his entourage were there, along with the mayor, the police drum and bugle corps, and several troops of scouts. The men all wore white guayaberas, which is formal attire in Yucatán, so I felt under-dressed!

Bugles called the assembly to order and flowers were laid beneath Cano’s statue. The governor spoke of the importance of the ceremony, and a girl scout recited his life story from memory. The band played, and everyone sang the national anthem – four of the ten verses! (Just imagine trying to get a U.S. crowd to sing more than one verse of their anthem!) There was palpable patriotic pride.

But who exactly was Juan Cano y Cano? Born to a wealthy Basque family in Mérida in 1815, he was sent to study in New York while a teenager. He later studied military engineering at the Ecole Central in Paris, having been denied admission to the prestigious Polytechnic because he was not French. His excellence drew offers to work for the French government, but Cano declined the offer, preferring to return to Mexico and enlisting in the army, joining the national corps of engineers.

Distinguishing himself in battle during the “War of the Cakes” against France he was elevated to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He oversaw projects such as a new highway to Acapulco and enhancements to the fortifications of Mexico City. Most importantly, he was part of negotiations for reconciliation of the Republic of Yucatán with Mexico after the state seceded in 1841.

In 1847 Cano was charged with strengthening the battlements of Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City ahead of the U.S. invasion. But his boss, General Santa Ana, a quixotic figure, failed to send the expected workers or supplies. The castle fell to U.S. troops on September 13, 1847. Cano was killed in the Battle of Chapultepec along with his cadets, the famed Heroic Children, who are remembered in monuments all over the country.

The first person to uphold Cano as a hero was none other than Ulysses S. Grant, whom Cano had wounded during a skirmish at the Battle of Cerro Gordo. Seeing Cano’s body among the fallen, he ordered that he be afforded a hero’s remembrance.

These are the details on which the governor focused in his remarks. But others brought out the human side of the story.

On September 12th Cano sent a letter to his uncle, General Andres Quintana Roo, after whom Yucatán’s neighboring state is named. (Obviously, military dispatch then was far more efficient than Mexican postal service today!)

“Dear uncle, I am certain that tomorrow we will die, and since I do not want to give my elderly parents the imponderable bitterness of receiving at the same time the news of the death of their two children, I beg you to arrest my brother Lorenzo who is determined to remain at my side, as I’m sure he would perish with me, if he stayed in Chapultepec.”

His uncle honored the request, and Lorenzo was spared. Juan was given the opportunity to flee the castle as well, but refused to leave while others were at risk.

Cano y Cano is honored today because of his valor, his dedication to country, and his efforts to reunite Yucatán with Mexico. But he is honored even more as an example of the importance of family and selfless love.

I will never again walk past his monument without taking note.