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The Mexican National Anthem: An Art-Loving Dictator, A Captive Lyricist, And Spanish Musician

Ancient History | August 13, 2019

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1795-1876), Mexican general. Source: (Getty Images)

At Mexican political ceremonies and sporting events such as the World Cup, don't be surprised if you hear a jaunty little ditty called "Himno Nacional." However, the Mexican national anthem's upbeat tune belies its bizarre history. It begins with a military dictator with a love of the arts and ends with the unlikely collaboration of a Mexican poet—held captive by his fiancé—and a Spanish musician. Here is how "Himno Nacional" came to be. 

Santa Anna may have been a ruthless military leader but he was also a lover of the arts. Source: (theculturaltrip.com)

A Military Dictator

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was the general who led the Mexican army in the defeat of the Texans at the Alamo during the Mexican-American War. He was a powerful leader with a narcissistic, boastful, self-aggrandizing personality. Because of his pride and lust for power, Mexico lost quite a bit of its territory during the war with the United States, but that didn't exactly temper his ego. He served four terms as the president of Mexico between 1833 and 1835, and after that, he transitioned to a military-backed dictator. He fell from power after the Texas Revolution and was exiled but staged a political comeback in 1839. Beginning that year, he served seven more terms as the president of Mexico, ending his reign in 1855.

Mexican flag, circa 1846. Source: (istockphoto.com)

A Tyrant with a Love of the Arts

Santa Anna is remembered as a tyrannical ruler. During his terms as president of Mexico, the country experienced political and economic upheaval. He kept his power through force, with the backing of the military. Santa Anna did, however, have a softer side, including a deep appreciation for the arts. It was during his rule that Santa Anna decided to commission a Mexican national anthem. He felt that a national anthem would have a unifying effect, instilling pride in the Mexican people, and give the rest of the world a glimpse into the rich artistic culture of Mexico. He just needed the right song. 

After suffering humiliating loses to the United States, Mexico needed to boost its national pride. Source: (ushistory.org)

A Songwriting Contest: Off to a Rough Start

Santa Anna held a contest in which he invited songwriters to submit their entries for the Mexican national anthem, appointing a panel of literary and musical intellectuals to serve as judges. They selected a song they felt would make a great national anthem for Mexico, but there was one problem: It was penned by a foreigner. It seemed silly to select an anthem for bolstering national pride by someone who wasn't, in fact, from that nation, so they decided to try again. Unfortunately, the second song they chose was also written by a non-Mexican. Frustrated, Santa Anna put out a call of poets and songwriters specifically of Mexican heritage to submit their ideas. Enter: Francisco Gonzalez Bocanegra.

Francisco Gonzalez Bocanegra fancied himself a serious poet...too serious to enter writing contests. Source: (mexicodesconocido.com.mx)

A Hesitant Lyricist

Francisco Gonzalez Bocanegra was a talented yet unknown poet. A native of San Luis Potosi, Bocanegra was 29 years old and newly engaged to his future wife, Guadalupe. He fancied himself a serious poet specializing in romantic verse, although he did work as a merchant to make ends meet. When Guadalupe heard about the national anthem contest, she urged her fiancé to write an entry. He scoffed at the suggestion, insisting that he was a classical poet, not a patriotic one. Still, Guadalupe persisted. She believed in her man's talent and ability, and she was certain he was the right person to pen the national song. He just needed some persuading. 

Bocanegra's fiance, Guadalupe, held him captive until he wrote his entry...and he married her anyway. Source: (identidadesmexico.com)

Kidnapped and Held Captive

Guadalupe soon realized that if she was going to get Bocanegra to work on a Mexican national anthem, she would need to take drastic measures. She locked Bocanegra in a room at her parents' house and gave him an ultimatum: She would unlock the door only when he produced a patriotic poem worthy of submission to Santa Anna's national anthem contest. The kidnapping was impressively premeditated. Before his arrival, Guadalupe stocked the room with paper, writing quills, history books, and even paintings of notable moments in Mexican history to serve as his inspiration. Bocanegra naturally protested his confinement but soon settled down to write. Four hours later, he slipped a stack of papers under the door. On them was a 10-verse patriotic poem recounting Mexico's historic struggles. Guadalupe was delighted and submitted Bocanegra's entry, which was unanimously picked as the winning submission. 

Jaime Nuno was a Spanish composer. Source: (historia-biografia.com)

Now, for the Music

At first, Bocanegra's poem was set to music written by an Italian composer named Giovanni Bottesini, but the music just didn't work for the lyrics. The search was on for appropriate music for the anthem, and as luck would have it, Santa Anna soon made the acquaintance of Spanish composer Jaime Nuno. The two struck up a friendship over their shared love of the arts, and Santa Anna invited the Spaniard to come to Mexico and head up the national orchestra. Nuno accepted the offer and ingratiated himself with Santa Anna and the political leaders of Mexico.

A Spanish composer and a Mexican lyricist showed the complexity of the Mexican culture. Source: (alchetron.com)

An Anonymous Musical Entry

Jaime Nuno wanted to write the music for the Mexican national anthem and looked into entering the writing contest, but he was afraid that his well-known name and association with Santa Anna would impact his entry. He wanted to do so fair and square, so he submitted his entry anonymously. He even asked a friend to copy the music so his handwriting would not be recognized by the judges. He only came forward and acknowledged his work when his music was selected as the winning entry. Since Nuno was a favorite of Santa Anna, the dictator overlooked the fact that he was foreign-born, instead touting the significance of having a collaboration between a Mexican and a Spaniard to create the Mexican national anthem. 

Nuno leading a playing of "Himno Nacional", the Mexican national anthem. Source: (frontera.gobsp.com)

Lost to History

Bocanegra and Nuno's names have long been forgotten, even as history remembers Santa Anna. The national anthem that they created took some time to even officially become the Mexican national anthem. Although it was used long before, it wasn't until 1943 that then-president Manuel Avila Camacho declared "Himno Nacional" the official Mexican national anthem, although several verses were removed from the original poem. Listen, it's hard to self-edit in a hostage situation.

Tags: Himno Nacional | The Mexican National Anthem

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.