The New Cuauhmeh: Escuadrón 201

The cuauhmeh, the plural form of eagle in Nahuatl, were a special division of soldiers in the Aztec military that were known for their ferocity and ability to capture opponents for ritual sacrifice. While a majority of these men were the sons of nobles, men of any class could reach the rank of cuauhtli, the Nahuatl singular for eagle, if they proved themselves in battle. Deemed eagle knights by the Europeans, these warriors were truly representative of the Aztec’s might and militaristic culture. While the Spanish, along with native allies like the Tlaxcalans, eventually defeat the Aztecs and take their capital of Tenochtitlan, pieces of that Aztec heritage live on through symbolism. Indigenous scribes drew pictures of warriors garbed in eagle knight attire, describing how they rose to such a powerful position. In these codices, the story of the founding of Tenochtitlan is found with an artistic representation of an eagle perched atop a cactus tearing into a snake with its beak, which eventually became a part of the Mexican flag.

In 1944, a little over 400 years after the fall of Tenochtitlan, the symbol of the eagle appeared once again to grant Mexican soldiers on a U.S. military base in Texas. These soldiers are Escuadrón 201, the 201st Squadron also nicknamed the Aztec Eagles, who joined World War Two with the United States in 1945 to help push for victory in the Pacific. While the war was practically over, and Escuadrón 201 did not change the tides of war in any drastic way, I argue that Mexico’s help in the war is representative of a fallback to traditional Mexican culture and a start to a more positive relationship with the United States.

Made up of 300 personnel, including 30 pilots, Escuadrón 201 was put on a train from Mexico City and sent up to Texas to begin their training and integration into the United States Military in late July 1944. While Mexico had not seen overseas combat in its history, it did not mean that their air force was untrained. More than half of the pilots in Escuadrón 201 received flight training in the United States prior to the formation of their squadron. [1] One pilot, Antonio Cárdenas, even had aerial combat experience in Mexico, as the Mexican government held bombing campaigns against the Yaqui, an Indigenous people from Sonora, Mexico. [2] Similar to the eagle warriors of the Aztec, many of these pilots came from wealthier families that could afford to send them to nice schools where they would be recognized. However, some of these men were common folk, like Miguel Moreno Arreola, who grew up poor and needed to make contacts in order to receive scholarships. [3] This mixed bag of soldiers took up the nickname of Aguilas Aztecas, Aztec Eagles, which was originally granted by the Mexican media, and fought not as nobles and commoners, but as warriors.

The representation of Escuadrón 201 in American media during their time as allies to the United States grants insight into the growing relationship between Mexico and the U.S. The two source bases I chose are the Dallas Morning News (DMN) and La Prensa, a Spanish language newspaper. These newspapers were in close proximity to Escuadrón 201 because they trained near Dallas, where the DMN is based, and San Antonio, where La Prensa is based. Surprisingly, even in the Jim Crow South, the Dallas Morning News had nothing negative to say about Mexico allying with the U.S. nor was their negative comment about Mexicans training in Texas. In fact, in one article the United States compared Mexico’s military efforts to Brazil, which the DMN referred to as their “sister republic.” [4] However, while the DMN did not post negatively about Esquadrón 201, the Mexican soldiers never made headlines for the paper and they were not as frequently written about in comparison to La Prensa. One article that made the news for La Prensa but not DMN, for example, was the death of pilot Crisóforo Salido Grijalva during training near Dallas. [5] While the DMN may have not published negative opinion on the soldiers, their minimal publishing on their training along with the lack of respect to the dead is indicative of prejudice in American media.

Mexican President Manuel Ávila Camacho, the country’s leader during WWII and the man responsible for convincing the Mexican government to join the war, ends his single term in 1946 as the last military president. Miguel Alemán Valdés, the man who preceded Camacho, was the first civilian president, and every president after him would be a civilian as well. This direction from a less militaristic government meant a lack of recognition for war heroes like Esquadrón 201, and so the soldiers are now only by monuments like in Cuernevacas, Morelos, and at a school built in honor of one soldier from his home town. The United States continued to celebrate Esquadrón 201, or at least they gave them more spotlight than the Mexican government. Besides being granted medals, monuments, and a place in the Air Force Museum in the United States, the squadron continued to be recognized in a number of Texas newspapers every so often since the end of WWII. In 1949, while Mexico’s federal government moved away from military heroes like Escuadrón 201, the Dallas Morning News published articles that reported honorary ceremonies in Mexico by U.S. officials. [6] No matter the politics of the era, the Aztec Eagles were successful in not only bringing about a time-honored Mesoamerican tradition of honorary combat but also becoming the first step in making better relations with the United States.