The contours of the billboard map of Mexico and its neighbors may have been familiar, but not its political boundaries: California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas were shaded in the green of a Mexico that stretched from close to Canada to the jungles of Guatemala. "In an Absolut World!" the billboard proclaimed, alongside the image of a bottle of Absolut vodka.
Ruminating over the loss to the U.S. of what had been Mexican territories before the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848 may have been an ad maker's idea of a good way to sell hard liquor and get a chuckle south of the Rio Grande, but some up north didn't find it so funny. After a barrage of complaints on its Internet site and threats to boycott the Swedish-made brand in the U.S., Absolut announced it was withdrawing the advert. "In no way was this meant to offend or disparage, nor does it advocate an altering of borders, nor does it lend support to any anti-American sentiment, nor does it reflect immigration issues," wrote Absolut spokeswoman Paula Eriksson on the company website. "Instead, it hearkens to a time which the population of Mexico may feel was more ideal."
That may be overstating it, somewhat: It's unlikely that most Mexicans really feel that mid-19th century life was exactly "ideal." But the heat generated online by the ad does reveal that the war and resultant redrawing of the map 160 years ago can still spark a furor on both sides of the border. Thousands of critics accused the ad of being anti-American and took pains to defend the inclusion of the southwestern states into the union. "It is absurd to believe that the U.S. stole Texas and California since most inhabitants of the Southwest considered the 19th century Mexican government a totalitarian regime and wanted independence, and rightfully so, from Mexico," wrote a blogger who signed in as CPTLOU on the Absolut forum.
Others defended the ad for reminding the public about the war. "Anti-American? The only thing they did was to show how one day the U.S.-Mexico map was. Or is the Mexico-U.S. war and how the U.S. stole Mexican territories not part of the American continent's history?" retorted a blogger who called himself Asturcon.
Writer Guadalupe Loeza says the advert went down well in Mexico because many people here still begrudge the loss of half of their territory to their northern neighbor. The 1848 war fills up big chunks of school history textbooks, and Mexicans have made national heroes of teenage soldiers who reportedly jumped to their deaths rather than surrender to the U.S. army as it swept into Mexico City. The ensuing Treaty of Guadalupe ceded some 525,000 square miles of Mexican territory to the U.S. for $15 million, and also included Mexico's first formal recognition of the loss of Texas, which had won its independence in 1836 and was absorbed by the United States in 1845.
"It is a wound that has still not quite healed," says Loeza. "For Mexicans seeing this advert, it is like remembering that big house they once lived in instead of the small apartment they now have."
Several leading Mexican writers have even portrayed the vast immigration of Mexican workers to southwestern United States represents a Reconquista of the lost territories. And it was precisely this equation of the old map with the flood of immigrants into the southwestern United States that angered many who blasted Absolut over the ad.
"Haven't you heard of the 'Reconquista' of the United States? I live in the west and the 'humanitarian' stealing of tax payers dollars here to fund the incompetence of Latinos to fund their own health care or learn English is appalling," wrote a blogger who signed as Diana Jorgensen. However, Mexican intellectuals view the re-conquest as cultural rather than military, talking with satisfaction over the fact people in California are speaking Spanish and eating enchiladas. No one in the mainstream of Mexican politics seriously contemplates an offensive northward. Mexico City car mechanic Santiago Gomez finds the ad funny, but would prefer California to be in U.S. rather than Mexican hands. That's because he plans to move to Los Angeles later this year to work with a friend already there. "I don't want to fight a war to reclaim these lands," he said smiling. "If Mexico owned them, then where would I go and earn my dollars?"