The Cuauhtémoc, named for the last Aztec emperor and warrior, is the Mexican Navy’s instructional tall ship for fourth-year cadets at the Heroica Escuela Naval Militar. She and her 246-member crew also are a diplomatic symbol of Mexico abroad. For eight months in 2018, the Cuauhtémoc circumnavigated South America in an event called Velas Latinoamérica together with the tall ships ARA Libertad of Argentina, Cisne Branco of Brazil, Esmeralda of Chile, ARC Gloria of Colombia, BAE Guayas of Ecuador, BAP Unión of Peru, and Simón Bolívar of Venezuela. The U.S. Coast Guard Eagle (WIX-327) joined for the port of Curaçao.
I had the opportunity to be on board the Cuauhtémoc for three months as the U.S. Navy guest officer. From my daily interactions with the crew and cadets, I left with a positive and more complete impression of Mexico and four observations:
Junior Relationships Matter
The great strength of the exchange is it allows officers to make friends from different navies at the junior level. I was one of approximately 20 guest officers from 11 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Panama, and the United States.
At sea we were exposed to traditions such as climbing the rigging and passing commands on a mariner’s whistle. We explored ports together and met officers embarked on other ships at receptions. The wide representation sparked interesting conversations, and through the shared travels and experiences, we formed positive junior-level friendships. Although it is difficult to know the long-term benefits of such programs, the U.S. Navy should continue to support them.
Another strength of the cruise was its language immersion. The daily conversations and interactions on board ship beat those of the best classroom. From small-talk in line at the barbershop to formal presentations and navigation briefs, the topics were all-encompassing, and almost always in Spanish.
As a Navy, we should promote learning a foreign language, even if not to fluency. According to the educational resource Rosetta Stone, Spanish is the second most common global native language, with an estimated 400 million speakers, after Chinese and before English.
Spanish is the language of 20 countries, most of which are in Latin America, where the U.S. Navy seeks stronger partnerships with regional navies. A working knowledge of the language would be useful during combined exercises or operations, such as counternarcotics efforts. Speaking Spanish would be a sign of respect, fostering confidence among our foreign partners.
It also would be highly practical at home, improving trust and teamwork in the all-volunteer force. Based on the 2016 census, 40 million people—13 percent of the U.S. population—speak Spanish at home. This includes 70 percent of the 56.6 million Hispanic population, a demographic that likely will constitute 28 percent of the country’s population by 2060.1 Though there is no data on Spanish speakers in the Navy, Hispanics made up 7.5 percent of the officer corps and 16.7 percent of enlisted personnel in 2016.2 Spanish is taught in U.S. schools, but it is not well retained or valued, which is to our disadvantage.
This cruise also provided a sense of the history of the countries we visited. There was time to experience and read and reflect. I was surprised, for example, at my own lack of knowledge of Mexican-U.S. military history and wondered how many junior officers are in the same boat.
Mexico remembers several instances in particular:
- Los Niños Héroes, the six military cadets who died in the Battle of Chapultepec in 1847 during the Mexican-American War.
- The naval cadets and officers who died in the defense of Veracruz during the 1914 U.S. intervention. The Heroica Colegio Militar (military academy) and Heroica Escuela Naval Militar (naval academy) were named “heroic” in their honor.
- The four foreign invasions of the port of Veracruz—two by U.S. forces—which earned the city the title Cuatro Veces Heroica (“Four Times Heroic”).
This part of history is remembered in Mexico with respect, but the periods’ political instabilities and ineffective military resistance are papered over. The conversation that does not take place much in the United States is over the debatable justifications for the invasions—the Texas border dispute in 1846 and the Tampico Affair in 1914.3 These historical events should not embitter today’s positive inter-Navy relationship, but provide important insights to study.
Expand The Framework
A common question was whether the U.S. Navy has a training tall ship. It does not, though the Coast Guard does with the barque Eagle.
Should the Navy build a tall ship? It does not seem the most practical or necessary expenditure at present, given the ocean training already offered and the curriculum changes and diversions from operational funding that would be required.
However, the Navy should expand exchanges within the existing framework on board the Eagle and with countries with which we have not yet arranged exchanges, such as with Peru’s Unión. It should continue this developmental opportunity that builds relationships at a junior level, improves language ability through immersion, and furthers historical and cultural understanding.
1. “Facts for Features: Hispanic Heritage Month 2016,” census.gov, www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2016/cb16-ff16.html.
2. “Navy by Gender, Race, and Ethnicity,” Department of Defense, https://diversity.defense.gov/Portals/51/Documents/Presidential%20Memorandum/20161018%20Abbreviated%20US%20Navy%20by%20Gender,%20Race,%20and%20Ethnicity%20v1.0.pdf?ver=2017-01-04-135118-310.
3. Tim Bailey, “The Mexican-American War: Arguments for and against Going to War,” History Now, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, www.gilderlehrman.org/content/mexican-american-war-arguments-and-against-going-war. In his memoirs, President Ulysses Grant writes of his opposition to the war, which he fought in as a lieutenant. Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company, 1885), Project Gutenberg, ch. 3, “Army Life—Causes of the Mexican War—Camp Salubrity,” www.gutenberg.org/files/4367/4367-h/4367-h.htm.