Should We Change the National Anthem?

One of the principal functions of a national anthem is to honor a head of state or a monarch at special ceremonies. In Europe, the tradition of playing the anthem in theaters, and then in cinemas, began in London in 1745 with the playing of “God Save the King” at the Royal Theatre. Many anthems have come forth in moments of crisis, or have been adopted after struggles for independence against foreign or domestic enemies (revolutions, civil wars or uprisings against dictators), or with the unification of a country, because national anthems strive to be a symbol of national unity. The proliferation of national anthems during the 19th Century was symptomatic of the nationalism of the day, especially in America and in Europe. The struggle for independence is a favorite theme in the anthems of those nations who emerged after 1945, and in the founding of new countries, as in Africa where the end of colonialism spurred the creation of more national anthems. Often anthems are modified to reflect radical political change, such as the collapse of communism. Curiously, the anthem (without words) adopted by Russia in 1991 was part of the opera “Life of the Czar”, but in 2001 Vladimir Putin restored the music of the Soviet anthem with new words written by the author who had composed it under communism.

In a nutshell, national anthems are a barometer of the national climate at the moment of their adoption. The words often have meager literary merit, while patriotism is the principal sentiment. The German anthem, that in the 19th century began with the words “Germany, Germany, More than All Others in the World”, was banned by the allies in 1945, although seven years later Chancellor Konrad Adenauer agreed to cut out the first verses that had an imperialistic tone. Some anthems glorify the flag (“the Star Spangled Banner” of the United States, whose words were written in 1812), or a call to arms (the French Marseillaise, written for the Army of the Rhine after the declaration of war against Austria. An emblem of the Resistance during the Second World War it was banned by the Vichy government). Of the “Marseillaise” Napoleon Bonaparte said: “this music will save us a lot of cannons”.

In some anthems, the words and music of renowned composers and authors are used, although they may have been unintended. The poems and music of Rabindranath Tagore (Bangladesh and India), music by Franz Joseph Haydn (Germany), or the music of Charles-Francois Gounod (the Vatican). A Bengali sings: “My Bengal of gold, I love your skies forever”: a Brazilian says: Our Forests Are More Alive” in a country of ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity; an Indian sings to the Universal Spirit and names the Punjab, Orissa, the Himalayas and the sacred rivers. There are anthems without countries, like Tibet, that was absorbed by China in 1950, where singing the Loa (based on ancient Tibetan music), the teaching of the Bhudda and peace, is prohibited.

On November 12, 1853, five years after Mexico had lost nearly half of its territory to the United States, the President for the 11th time, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, offered a prize for the best patriotic poem. Of the 26 compositions one of ten verses written by the poet from San Luis de Potosi, Francisco Gonzalez Bocanegra, was selected. His fiancee shut him up in a room until he had finished writing the words. In February 1854 the general held a competition to see who could best fit the poem to music. Out of the 15 competitors, the Spaniard Jaime Nuno was awarded the 500 peso prize. The national anthem made its debut September 15, in the Santa Anna Theater (later called the National Theater), the general being absent and upset because the words insufficiently revolved around him. The remains of the poet and the musician rest in the Rotunda de los Hombres Ilustres, those of the president who had himself called “Your Serene Highness”, and who fled the country after being deposed in 1855, are in the cemetery of Tepeyac.

The official version currently used consists of four verses and a chorus. The whole anthem is usually sung at scholastic events. It includes obsolete words like “bridon”, which refers to a horse. It has become almost obligatory for the National Anthem to be sung before sporting events and at the Olympic Games for the winner when he steps up onto the dais. Sometimes people make a mistake when singing it, as was the case with Guadalupe Madrigal, who on October 31, 2004 left out some words during a football game, a distortion whose consequence was that the government decided to fine those who made similar errors. Santiago Creel. Minister of the Interior, declared that “the National Anthem” should be sung “as stipulated by law, solemnly, respectfully, according to the official text and music”, and Madrigal paid a fine equivalent to the sum of 10 days of the Mexican minimum wage.

Anthems usually refer to historic events, or commemorate the armed struggle of the country in defense of its sovereignty, its territory and the freedom of its citizens. But, just how much do those who sing these anthems connect the words with the meaning of the deeds in spite of the fact that there are armed conflicts? The Mexican National Anthem, like others, exhibits a bellicose spirit that is out of tune with the age. Mexican foreign policy, the pacifist tradition, and the fact that she has lobbied for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in Latin America, should be reflected in a national anthem. Furthermore, children should be taught that neighbors are not natural enemies, and that we do not have to be on a war footing in order to exist. Instead of “tus campinas con sangre se riegen (let your fields be watered with blood”), why not say “tus campinas de verde se llenen (may your fields be filled with greenery”). Among the tasks of the Mexican Army is that of helping with natural disasters, and it has peacefully crossed borders to bring aid to victims of the Asiatic tsunami and hurricane Katrina,

In politics, “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, said Samuel Johnson. But a nationalism that is well understood should emphasize the moral, cultural and natural values of a country. The Mexican national anthem makes no reference to the pre= Colombian heritage. How about an anthem that speaks of the Mayan ceremonial centers, the Pyramid of the Sun, the Monarch butterfly and corn, the key to Mexican mythology and the cultural food of Mexico and Mesa-America, of chocolate and of the Mexican plants that feed the world, the Usamacinta River, the Sea of Cortez, the Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl volcanoes, the world view of ancient Mexicans, of the Virgin of Guadalupe, of Emiliano Zapata and the land as an example of justice and social equality. In our anthem there is no reference to ethnic diversity, nor to the indigenous roots of the country where 13% of the population is indigenous and the majority mixed. If, as says Creel when criticizing the singer Madrigal, the anthem, the flag and the shield are “symbols that identify us all as a nation”, where are the indigenous people recognized in the National Anthem? It is not enough that the Verano Linguistics Institute has translated the anthem into Cora, Chontal, Mazatec, Mixtec, Otomi, Tepehua, Zapotec, etc.. Since the end of apartheid, each verse of the National Anthem in South Africa is sung in a language of the country: Xhosa, Sesotho, Afrikaans, English; an authentic anthem to unity.

“Mexicanos, al grito de guerra (Mexicans, at the cry for war”), does that motivate you in your daily life? Do you feel more Mexican singing (or hearing) this? Don’t you think that the war to be prosecuted now in Mexico should be against poverty and injustice. Only through this manner will we be able to bring the country to a lofty and dignified place among nations in the 21st century. Should we change the National Anthem?