Mexico and I have always gotten along. This surely is not true for everybody, especially for those who ended up taking a bath in an acid filled 55 gallon drum, but for the last 47 years we still sing a good song. Perhaps it is because it is a country where inefficiency is a virtue, where the hurried are shunned, and where day drinking is applauded and encouraged. All this fits nicely into my wheel house.
To really understand Mexico let us look at one of its past leaders who resides in the Black Pantheon of Guys who failed their Nation: Antonio de Padua Maria Severino de Santa Anna y Perez de Lebron, also known as Santa Ana or perhaps in some circles as just Santa. This guy lived a crazy political life having been named President of Mexico eleven non-consecutive times and was still at the end of his life, ready for a come back (we thought Bret Farve was bad). He was the man in charge at the massacres at the Alamo (189 Americans killed including Dave Crockett and Sam Bowie) and at Goliad (executed 342 Texas prisoners) all in 1836. Joel Pointsett (the first US minister to Mexico) called Santa Ana a “polecat in silk clothing” (Joel was an amateur botanist and would send back to the states the beautiful red flowered plant that now graces his name : the Pointsettia.) A month after his wife died, Santa, now 50, married a 15 year old and attempted many coups and presidential runs, but after eleven shots in the high office the good people of Mexico had had enough. He was forgotten and unloved.
But that isn’t why I found interest in this madman in silk. (By the way, he demanded to be called by his subjects the title “Most Serene Highness”. I have no problem with that, having been called the same more than once.) In this case what interests me are artificial legs and chewing gum. A big spread I know, but Santa has his hat in the ring in both instances.
Let’s go back to the famous “French Pastry War” of 1838 to 1839. (not making this up.) What happened is that a French citizen living in Mexico City owned a pastry shop that was ravaged by some boozy Mexican officers after a night on the town and split without payment (who hasn’t thrown down a bunch of eclairs, croissants, and gaugeres after chugging Margaritas). The shop owner filed a claim which was quickly dismissed by Mexican authorities. He complained to the French embassy which appealed to the French government who issued a demand for 60,000 pesos from the Mexican government. (Which was a lot of dough back then (no pun intended), for 1 peso was the daily wage for the average worker.) The Mexicans said NO so the Frenchies invaded, thus started ” the French Pastry War,” and that brings us to Santa Ana. Though disgraced from his defeat in Texas he was still the Main Man in Mexico ( M.M.M.) and he met the French invading army at Veracruz. There, he was hit in the leg by cannon fire, and had his leg amputated, which he buried at his hacienda. The war ends after 4 months – the French got their pesos, and headed back to France to their pastries. After the war Santa Ana arranged for a state funeral for his amputated leg which at that point had been buried for almost 4 years. It was dug up, placed in a crystal vase, taken in a full military dress parade to Mexico City and buried beneath an elaborate monument in Santa Paula cemetery. The funeral involved cannon salvos, speeches, and poems in the general’s honor (we did similar things when our tortoise died last year). So the guy had to get a fake leg.
Let’s now jump to the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and Santa Ana is fighting American forces at the Battle of Cerro Gordo. He
The captured leg
decides to take a breather and chow down on some fine roasted chicken. His lunch is interrupted by the 4th Regiment Illinois Volunteers (led by a young Robert E. Lee, who 15 years later would command the Confederate forces in the Civil War) who swoop down upon the camp, somehow allowing the one legged Santa to escape (we have to assume by horseback or personal hovercraft), but he leaves behind his wood/cork fake leg and chest of gold coins. The volunteers turned in the gold, but keep the leg. Today, Santa’s fake leg resides at the Illinois
National Guard Museum in the town of Cerro Gordo, Illinois (used to be called Griswold, but because of the victory they changed the town’s name). There is a story that Abner Doubleday while stationed in Mexico during the Mexican American War used the fake leg as a bat to introduce his new game of baseball. This is not true, for Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with the invention of baseball (he is often credited with inventing the game, although he himself never made such claim and there is no evidence to support it. He is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, while in San Francisco after the Civil War, he obtained the first patent for the cable car which he eventually sold.) The Mexican government has requested the leg be returned, but I don’t see this happening anytime soon.
And that finally brings us to Santa Ana and chewing gum. A fellow named Tommy Adams lived in Staten Island and was a photographer and glass maker, among other vocations. To make a little dough on the side he would take in boarders, and in this case it would be the irrepressible General Santa Ana doing some exile time away from Mexico. Santa Ana was in possession of a large amount of chicle, a sticky substance that comes from the Mexican sapodilla tree, and suggested to Adams that he try to vulcanize it as a substitute for rubber. Adams tried to make toys, masks, rain boots, and bike tires out of the material, all failures. Preparing to dump the chicle into the East River, Adams popped a piece into his mouth and liked the taste. Chewing away, he had the idea to add flavoring to the chicle. Shortly after, he opened the world’s first chewing gum factory and in February of 1871, “Adams New York Gum No.1” went on sale in drug stores for a penny a piece. He then added “Chic-lets,” “Black Jack,” and “Tutti-Frutti” to his line and was the first gum to be sold in vending machines. During the next year, Thomas Adams formed the “American Chicle Company” which merged the 6 largest chewing gum manufacturers and remained on its board of directors until he died in 1905. In America, over 195 million pounds of chewing gum is consumed annually.
I don’t think Santa Ana got a dime from Tommy Adams, for the self proclaimed” Napoleon of the West” and the ” Most Serene Highness” died penniless in Mexico City in 1876 at the age of 82, but his replacement fake leg is being displayed at the National History Museum in Mexico City, so in a twisted sense his legacy lives on. On the other hand, Bruce says “everything dies baby that’s a fact, but maybe everything dies someday comes back” so if you are walking down the street and see a one legged Mexican chewing gum wearing silk yell out “Hey Santa” and see what reaction you get. Groove.