Santa Anna was born in Jalapa in the Mexican state of Veracruz. He entered Spanish military service at age 15. Initially he stayed in the royalist forces during the fight for independence from Spain, but joined the popular side in 1821. Santa Anna began a pattern of assisting a political figure into power, then turning against him.
Santa Anna gained great popularity by his actions in resisting the Spanish effort to regain control in Mexico in 1828. He was first elected president in 1833, turning his office into a dictatorship the following year. His efforts to increase central government powers did much to foment unrest in Tejas (Texas), home to many American expatriates. In 1835, the Texas Revolution erupted and Santa Anna became the prime villain of Texas history because of his actions at The Alamo and at Goliad. Samuel Houston defeated the Mexican army under Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, assuring Texas independence.
In 1838, Santa Anna served with great distinction against the French at Veracruz. His valor there and the loss of a leg helped him to regain favor with the Mexican public. (In 1842, in an effort to again boost his popularity, Santa Anna had his leg disinterred and paraded through the streets of Mexico City.) He continued in and out of power during the early 1840s and built an undistinguished record in the Mexican War (or the American War, from the Mexican perspective), losing battles at Buena Vista, Cerro Gordo, Puebla and Mexico City. Following those reverses, he retreated into exile.
Santa Anna returned to power again in the early 1850s, but was completely discredited by his sale of a huge portion of Mexican territory to the United States in the 1853 Gadsden Purchase.
Santa Anna again sought exile and returned to Mexico very late in life, dying in poverty in 1876.
Santa Anna was one of Mexicos most prominent political and military figures in the 19th century. His reputation was based upon opportunism, not by adherence to any political philosophy.
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