What do a sky-diving event in Canada, a celebration featuring Mexican beer on the Mediterranean island of Malta, and an air guitar competition in the Cayman Islands have in common? Why Cinco de Mayo, of course! While these are some of the more far-flung examples, they are representative of a Mexican holiday that is celebrated with more intensity in many places outside of Mexico than in the country where the events that inspired it actually took place.
Despite widespread misconceptions, Cinco de Mayo (May 5th) is not Mexican Independence Day (as we discussed in an earlier post on the subject, that is celebrated on September 16th). Cinco de Mayo commemorates the victory of the Mexican militia over a much-larger French Army at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The battle happened during a very chaotic time in Mexican history. After a difficult and bloody struggle, Mexico had finally achieved independence from Spain in 1821. The years that followed were very tumultuous, resulting in not much job security (not to mention short life expectancies) for many of those who would be president. After the Mexican-American War (referred to in Mexico as the “American Invasion”) from 1846-1848 and the Mexican Civil War of 1858, the Mexican economy was in shambles.
During this time, Mexico had accumulated large debts to several nations, including Spain, England and France, who were demanding repayment. When the current president, Benito Juarez, announced that Mexico was suspending all loan repayments for two years, Napoleon III, who was eager to expand the French empire, seized the opportunity and used the debt issue as an excuse to invade Mexico.
French forces landed in Veracruz and began the nearly 600 mile march to Mexico City. However, the French met strong opposition near Puebla at the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. Led by General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, a smaller, poorly armed Mexican militia of only 4,500 men defeated the well-armed French army of 6,500 soldiers. It was a glorious, if short-lived, victory. When he learned of the defeat, Napoleon III redoubled his efforts and sent more troops. He may have had ulterior motives, as well. The United States was embroiled in its own civil war at the time, and some historians contend that France’s larger goal was to break up the American union. Napoleon III may have believed that he would be in a better position to support the Confederacy from Mexico. If so, the delay created by the Battle of Puebla could have been critical to the outcome, at least for the United States. In Mexico, it took another year, but the French were eventually victorious, and Napoleon III was able to install his relative, Archduke Maximilian of Austria as the ruler of Mexico.
Maximilian’s rule lasted only from 1864 to 1867, and during this time, Juarez ran a parallel “government in exile” from the State of Chihuahua. Once the American Civil War was over, the U.S. was able to provide at least implicit assistance to Mexico to expel the French. President Andrew Johnson invoked the Monroe Doctrine in order to give recognition to Juárez’s government. When he couldn’t get support from Congress, he allegedly had the Army “lose” some supplies (including 30,000 rifles) just across the border in Mexico. Although Maximilian privately held Mexican nationalist sympathies, when Benito Juarez returned to power, he ordered Maximilian’s execution. A gentleman to the end, Maximilian’s last words were “Viva Mexico!”
Although France did eventually succeed in ruling Mexico for a short time, Cinco de Mayo honors the bravery of the small Mexican militia commanded by General Zaragoza that defeated the much larger and better-armed French army at the Battle of Puebla. Today in Mexico it is a regional holiday, celebrated primarily in Puebla. It’s much bigger in many places in the United States, where it has become a celebration of Mexican food, music, and culture.
And why not? The world loves the story of the victorious underdog—not to mention an excuse to drink Mexican beer!
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