Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876) is a colossal figure in Mexico’s history. Mexicans remember him as a “vendepatria” (sellout) who lost over half of their nation’s territory to the United States (1). They condemned him after he became a brutally repressive dictator in the 1850s (2). However, historians have noted that Santa Anna had a mixed reputation during a majority of his lifetime, and that he was “neither a diabolical dictator nor a benign selfless patriotic patriarch”(3). While scholarship on Santa Anna sheds light on his character in hindsight, what did his contemporaries make of him?
Santa Anna was arguably odd, and his public reception was multilayered (4). For example, he once held an extravagant funeral for his amputated leg. The ceremony reveals his eccentric character and also highlights how the public viewed him at different times in his career (5). Santa Anna lost his left leg when he put himself at the forefront of battle to defend Mexico against French intervention. Because of his military service and victories, several Mexicans admired him as a valorous patriot (6). However, at the time of the leg’s funeral, he had cult followers called “santanistas” that sycophantically humored him (7). This santanista following hints at Santa Anna’s corrupt rather than valorous nature; several Mexicans knew him “to repay those that backed him” (8).
"Historical Vignettes of General Santa Anna. Part 2", Hesiquio Iriarte (lithographer), circa 1857.
This print includes 20 scenes that illustrate a selection of events from Santa Anna’s life, including the 1842 ceremonial burial of his leg. The captions for each scene present declarative sentences or titles for the events. In what ways might this print reveal the artist’s perspective on Santa Anna, in addition to facts?
Scholars argue that Santa Anna “was a puzzle to his contemporaries” (9). His legacy speaks to a timeless challenge of gauging our leaders’ intentions as we watch history in the making. This exhibit includes records that vary from praise to warnings about Santa Anna’s character, preceding the dictatorship that led almost all Mexicans to denounce him. It also addresses the complex history of Mexico’s first decades as an independent nation, which shapes how we understand Santa Anna today. Through a juxtaposition of primary sources and historical perspective, “Santa Anna in Life and Legend” invites the viewer to consider how the contexts of a given time can impact our perception of politics.
(1) Will Fowler, “Santa Anna and His Legacy,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Latin American History, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press USA, 2015): 1.
(2) Samuel Manickam, “‘El Seductor De La Patria’: A Dialogic Response To The Historic Santa Anna,” Chasqui 39, no. 2 (November 1, 2010): 17-18.
(3) Will Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), xxvi.
(4) Ibid 39.
(5) Ibid 224.
(6) Manickam, “‘El Seductor De La Patria’,” 17-18.
(7) John Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 1800-1850, (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1992), 331. Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 224.
(8) Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 331.
(9) Ibid 335.