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At dawn on May 5, 1862, 6000 French troops drew up with heavy artillery before Puebla de Los Angeles, a fine town strategically situated by the San Francisco River in a valley surrounded by mountains and volcanoes in central Mexico. Within this “town of angels,” paved with stone and graced with plazas, statues and gardens, some 2000 Mexicans combatants waited. As rays from the rising sun warmed the greying sky, the French cannon opened fire, leaping and recoiling in rapid, thundering succession down the line.
The Battle of Puebla had begun.
The French cannon fell silent in the early evening, under a bloody sunset. In the morning, the French were gone. Incredibly, the poorly armed, underfed and outnumbered Mexican defenders of their homeland had won.
And Cinco de Mayo was born.
Cinco de Mayo is neither a national holiday nor widely celebrated in Mexico. The Fifth of May is not the Mexican “Fourth of July,” for it commemorates only a single victory in battle, rather than independence from a European colonial power. Mexico had gained its independence from Spain forty-one years earlier and, incidentally, 37 years after we won our independence from Great Britain.
So what was going on there in 1862? What on earth were the French doing in Mexico? One guess. That’s right. Loot.
In 1861, Mexico defaulted on its debts to France, Great Britain and Spain. (Yes, governments have always borrowed money from one another.) So the next thing you know, French, British and Spanish ships are sailing into Veracruz. This is much worse than harassing telephone calls from debt collectors. This is equivalent to your creditor deploying troops on your front lawn. This is when you rush out the front door with your hands out-stretched, shouting, “Can’t we just discuss this?”
Discussions ensued, after which the British and Spanish ships put about in the harbor and hoisted sails for home. The French did not. Napoleon III, President of France, Emperor of the French Empire and nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, smelled opportunity. Why not add Mexico to his empire? Shouldn’t be too much trouble. Mexico was brimming with silver mines and other rich, natural resources. It was possible that he also, secretly, caught the scent of blood drifting down from that large nation to the north of Mexico. The 78-year-old United States was engaged in a family squabble over social, economic and political issues that was turning the nation into a slaughterhouse. If he could hit them when they were preoccupied and weakened by their own self-inflicted warfare, maybe he could add the United States to the Empire of France. He licked his chops.
The French landed troops at Veracruz and the land grab was on. President Lincoln was aware of the potential threat to the U.S. if France annexed Mexico, but was fairly busy at the time trying to prevent the dissolution of his own country.
And so both wars went on and on. Two years after the French defeat at Puebla, Napoleon III confidently sent Archduke Ferdinand Maxmilian of Austria to Mexico to “reign” as the Emperor of Mexico. President Lincoln’s frown deepened, and the U.S. Congress passed a resolution against the establishment of a French monarchy in Mexico. In 1865, although President Lincoln was gone, the restored United States of America deployed 50,000 troops along the U.S.-Mexican border and began running arms into Mexico. We also blockaded the harbor at Veracruz to prevent the French from sending reinforcements to a struggle that they were certainly losing.
Not until February, 1867, however, did the French withdraw from the capital city of Mexico. In May, Ferdinand Maxmilian, the “Emperor of Mexico,” tried to escape, but he was caught and executed and Mexican President Benito Juarez returned in triumph to the National Palace in Mexico City.
Why do we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Why is the Easter Bunny a part of the Christian observance of Christ’s resurrection? Why do we go “trick or treating” on Halloween? Because when our immigrant ancestors bravely left their homelands to build a new world, they brought with them both their religious and their secular holiday observances. And those of us who were already here, said, “Oh good. Another party.”
Cinco de Mayo, then, gives Mexican immigrants to the U.S., and by extension, all Hispanic immigrants, the opportunity to show off their own proud culture and heritage, and it gives the rest of us another excuse to party. (And besides, we did help a bit with that unpleasantness with the French.)
Incidentally, Puebla de los Angeles, where the Cinco de Mayo battle with the French invaders took place, is now the fourth largest city in Mexico. It is a prosperous and industrial city; only Mexico City has more public and private universities and Puebla hosts the largest Volkswagen factory outside Germany. Don’t you love it?
Hey. I bet that on Cinco de Mayo, some Pueblanos even celebrate with French champagne and sling their arms around the shoulders of French tourists and they all lift their glasses and shout, “Viva Mexico!”
Whether you are a North, South, or Central American, we are all Americans. On Cinco de Mayo, just celebrate that.