St. Mary’s students, faculty, colleagues and supporters at the Illinois State Capitol, where they build a Day of the Dead altar to Abraham Lincoln and publicly told how he was a champion for Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
St. Mary’s students, faculty, colleagues and supporters at the Illinois State Capitol, where they build a Day of the Dead altar to Abraham Lincoln and publicly told how he was a champion for Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Credit: Courtesy / Andre Grajeda

The Alamo was our last stop before leaving San Antonio.

At 5 a.m., it was still dark. It must have been an odd sight to see 24 bleary-eyed St. Mary’s University students gathered in Alamo Plaza at that hour – standing in a circle with lit candles.

Our professor, Dr. Teresa Van Hoy, shared the significance of stopping there before embarking on our journey to Springfield, Illinois. We would need strength and determination as we tried to persuade the people of Illinois that it would be honorable to return General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s long-lost prosthetic leg to Mexico after 169 years.

You see, Illinois’ favorite son is Abraham Lincoln, who was fiercely opposed to the Mexican-American War, and Lincoln is buried right next door to the Illinois State Military Museum, where Santa Anna’s leg is on display.

Meeting at the Alamo also signified bringing together all perspectives of history. To many people, Santa Anna is despised for the atrocious Battle of the Alamo. However, many fail to realize that, in a broader view, Santa Anna did what he had to do in a time when his country was being attacked and invaded.

In addition, Dr. Van Hoy shared that just as the 4th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Cavalry took Santa Anna’s prosthetic leg, Illinois troops were also responsible for saving the lives of Mexican women and children. Illinois troops formed a square around the women and children and protected them from other soldiers who attempted to harm them.

Events in history aren’t simply good vs. evil. There’s gray area. We hoped to shine light on those areas in our quest to repatriate the leg.

So we left the Alamo and started the 16-hour journey to Springfield. Our bus got a flat tire near Dallas, which slowed us down. And even though many students on the trip had never been out of Texas before, it was pretty obvious when we crossed the state line. We began seeing a lot of “Hay 4 Sale” signs, livestock and a mega casino. The only thing missing from the list of “This Must Be Oklahoma” was a tornado.

We passed the time by rehearsing our research topics. I spoke about why we had connected Lincoln to our quest for the leg. As an aspiring educator, I rocked my topic, giving a captivating spiel on how Lincoln opposed the Mexican-American War as a legislator and risked his entire political career to stay true to his beliefs. He supported Mexico during the installment of France’s regime under Maximilian, and he also appointed William Seward, a champion for Mexican and Mexican-American rights, as secretary of state.

The St. Mary’s University student/faculty group visiting Lincoln’s tomb.
The St. Mary’s University student/faculty group visiting Abraham Lincoln’s tomb. Credit: Courtesy / Andre Grajeda

We arrived in Springfield at 1:30 a.m. the next day and got a few hours of sleep before our first order of business: construct a Day of the Dead altar in honor of Lincoln at the Illinois State Capitol.

En route, I broke away from the group and stopped to buy a top hat for Lincoln’s ofrenda. As Mexican-American historians, we wanted to tell a historic account of Lincoln from a perspective that not many Illinoisans know. Lincoln was a staunch opponent of the Mexican-American War. He had just been elected into Congress, and he began his career going against the opinion of many other congressmen.

Even President James Polk said, “American blood had been spilled on American soil.” So Lincoln proposed the Spot Resolutions, which questioned the exact spot where the first conflict between U.S. Americans and Mexicans occurred.

We mingled with people who were curious about what we were doing. A few of us spoke to a University of Illinois-Springfield graduate student who had researched the Battle of Cerro Gordo. We struck up a conversation about two Illinois troops, Thomas Tennery and Joshua Jackson, who did not feel like they were invading Mexico for the sake of territory. In fact, Jackson wrote – shortly before dying from his wounds – to send word to his father that he died a man who did his best on the battlefield for his country.

Our group also had the opportunity to visit Lincoln’s tomb – an absolutely phenomenal experience – and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. As exciting as the trip had been so far, we were all eager to see Santa Anna’s leg.

The Illinois State Military Museum staff was clearly expecting us, as they had set up the room for our viewing. Placed on a table behind velvet ropes was a silver box that was opened once we had all settled in.

There it was. A piece of wood with a leather boot on its end. To be completely honest, to anyone else it wouldn’t have been much of a sight. It’s the story behind it that made the moment so captivating. For the past three months we had put in countless hours researching this prosthetic leg, and we had such an intricate understanding of its significance – that it was more than just a piece of wood, it was a story that only historians would truly appreciate.

Unfortunately, what followed was an uncomfortable, one-sided discussion. The tone was set as soon as we walked in, as there was a lack of Southern hospitality that we’re used to in Texas. The two curators were adamant that there would be no discussion about repatriating the leg. We were simply there to take a peek and that was it.

However, we were interested to hear why they felt the leg should stay in Springfield. Although we remained polite, we felt a genuine rudeness coming from the two men. Several times, students were interrupted as they shared their opinions, and others were completely ignored.

General Santa Anna’s prosthetic leg, housed at the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield, Illinois.
General Santa Anna’s prosthetic leg, housed at the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield, Ill. Credit: Courtesy / Andre Grajeda

Then they shut the box and carried it away. Just like that, the project that had begun more than a year ago was over.

It was quite unfair, really, because we had hoped to have a legitimate, educated dialogue between historians. But that’s just how it is sometimes. We kept our composure the entire time, despite our frustration at how unwelcome we felt as guests.

We still achieved our goal of bringing up the topic again and opening people’s eyes to a new perspective. Overall, we felt this project was a remarkable experience – intense research, thoughtful discussion and many humorous moments along the way. I can’t help but smile about our 1,000-mile quest to see Santa Anna’s leg.

Although there was resentment toward us and our project – from the curators’ statements to hostile social media and comment board posts – it’s nothing compared to the praise and support we received from students and scholars across the nation. Love fueled our movement, and that’s the most important part of this project to remember.

Andre Grajeda is a History major with a minor in Teacher Certification at St. Mary’s University. He’s a sophomore from Phoenix.