SAN JOSE, Ca., May 5, 2015 – The colorful and festive holiday that is normally celebrated throughout the United States on this day, which was a day commemorating a victory amidst a serious international crisis, should strengthen bonds of friendship between people from Mexico and the people of the United States. In the time of Mexico’s crisis, the United States was also facing a crisis of great magnitude. In each crisis within a similar time frame, each of the nations struggled for its very survival. Fortunately, both nations survived. Unfortunately, the story of this critical history is not well known because it is not well told.
Ironically, although Cinco de Mayo has become a well celebrated holiday in the United States, it remains relatively insignificant within most of Mexico. Despite the festivities celebrated on this day all across the United States, the average American may not know well the why behind the celebration. But, it is really not that complicated. It is similar to the reasons why the Chinese- Americans join together to celebrate Chinese New Year’s, or why so many Irish-Americans (as well as many who want to be Irish for the day) like to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, or the Italian- Americans like to gather and celebrate Columbus Day.
Celebrations of this nature are simply about people: family, relatives, and friends gathering together to eat and dance and sing and simply to enjoy one another’s company. Yet such type of celebrations, despite the obvious effort to have fun, can be distorted. And, in recent years such a simplistic effort to celebrate one special day has become overtly politicized. It serves as an opportunity to stir poison of political divisiveness. A similar example is what has happened to May Day over the years. The first day in May, known as May Day, used to be a celebration of the coming of Spring, but now it is mainly viewed as the holiday of the International Workers, and a day that was co-opted by the Communists.
The celebration of Cinco de Mayo by a large number of Mexican-Americans has been steadily used as a platform to exacerbate negative sentiments between Americans and Mexican people who have more recently crossed into the U.S. Especially, in recent years with an extraordinary influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America, the holiday has become a platform for malcontents and outright political agitators taking advantage of media attention. In one way these Mexican nationalists almost reflect the historical dimension of what had happened in Mexico at the original battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.
The Mexican people in that time were facing a foreign force intent on taking land and country, intent on taking control of the people in their homeland. In a similar way, Mexican-Americans are today being threatened by Mexican Nationalists who have advocated the concept of the Reconquista movement, which was intended to take back Mexico’s “lost” lands such as Texas, New Mexico and Arizona dating back to the Mexican War in the 1840s. Charles Truxillo, who recently pased away, was one of the primary advocates of Reconquista. Truxillo had been an adjunct professor at the University of Mexico who taught at the Chicano Studies Program. He promoted secession of the lost lands (including California) to create a separate Chicano nation.
Truxillo’s convoluted logic led to his advocating the concept of the states right of secession based upon the Articles of Confederation, which had little legal authority once replaced by the Constitution of the United States in 1788. The irony of his ideas is that the Confederate States of America did secede from the Union after Lincoln was elected President of the United States in 1860, but as the C.S.A. began the Civil War, it prevented the U.S. from exercising a legitimate policy of protection of Mexico under the Monroe Doctrine as France successfully invaded Mexico in 1861. The Civil War left Mexico without a friendly northern neighbor to help in the government’s survival. The very lethal threat to Mexican sovereignty and independence, was only met with decisive action by the United States when the Civil War subsided.
One question, which is usually raised at this point, is why the French Army was even invading Mexico in the first place. Ostensibly, they were sent to collect a debt. The story begins with Mexican indebtedness to France, Great Britain, and Spain after securing loans to mitigate the government’s near bankrupt status as a result of their internal division in the Mexican Civil War of 1858 and the internal Reform Wars between liberal and conservative political factions. The period known as “La Reforma” ended with the “liberals” taking control in 1860 with the intent to create a more modern Mexican civil society with a capitalist economy using the United States as a model.
In March of 1861, Benito Juárez, the first Native American to be elected president of Mexico, was provided a four-year term under the Constitution of 1857. Unfortunately, as he took the reins of government he discovered the real economic circumstances of a destitute treasury. In a parallel reality, Lincoln found the U.S. Treasury in a similar state after James Buchannan left office. Lincoln was in a predicament in the U.S., but Juarez was in even a worse situation. By July 17, 1861, Juarez issued a moratorium aimed at suspending all foreign debt payments for two years. It was not a good move. France, Great Britain, and Spain all sent warships into the Gulf of Mexico and jointly seized the custom house in the port city of Veracruz by December.
The obvious intent of the troika was to stay until they collected on their respective outstanding loans. Britain and Spain straightforwardly renegotiated the debt with the Juarez administration and their troops returned to their ships and sailed back to Europe. But, the French did not. France left their ships parked in the Gulf of Mexico and left their troops on alert. Their intent was not initially obvious, but Napoleon III, the French emperor, had cleverly decided to utilize the crisis to establish a French empire in Mexico. The emperor eventually sent Maximilian von Habsburg, a younger brother of the Emperor of Austria, to become the new emperor of Mexico.
The French marched from Veracruz towards Mexico City, and the first major battle occurred near the little village of Puebla. It was there on May 5, 1862, powerful French battalions with approximately 8,000 troops encountered heavy resistance from a Mexican band which numbered about 4,000, consisting of Mexican cavalry, troops, and Zapotec and Mixtec Indians as well as a herd of cattle that the Mexicans stampeded into the oncoming French foot soldiers. The celebration of Cinco de Mayo marks the extraordinary victory of these Mexican patriots over the French who were soundly defeated due to the strategy of the Mexican leader, General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín.
This victory surprised the French, and galvanized the Mexican resolve to fight for their freedom.
Unfortunately, it was only a temporary setback for the French forces. In 1863 with 30,000 troops, the French forced the Juarez government to flee north, ultimately to the city of El Paso del Norte, the city which today bears his name and is now known as Ciudad Juárez. Here is where he established his government in exile. In July of 1863, the French took over Mexico City. Finally, on April 20, 1864, the French installed Maximilian as Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico and essentially made Mexico a French colony. The United States could not do anything because our country had splintered and the nation was in the midst of the Civil War.
In the U.S., the Lincoln administration was fearful that the French were in a great position to aid the Confederacy, and Lincoln was aware of Napoleon III taking advantage of the situation. In 1863, Union forces were victorious at Gettysburg, which occurred 14 months after the Battle of Puebla. The tide of the war began to turn, and Lincoln regained confidence. By 1864, the U.S. Congress issued a resolution which expressed opposition to the monarchy in Mexico, and President Lincoln developed a new policy regarding the Latin American crisis, which in addition to the Monroe Doctrine, addressed the issue of the sovereignty of the autonomous nations in the Western Hemisphere.
Sadly, President Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865, but with the resolution of the Civil War, the U.S. could act to enforce Lincoln’s policies. Andrew Johnson followed Lincoln’s foundation and took action to push the French out of Mexico. If the U.S. had taken no action in the French incursion into Mexico, it would be likely that the Mexican people would not be speaking Spanish in this time; they would be speaking French or a combination of the two languages of their conquerors. But in the real world, the United States came to the aid of the Mexican government to remove the tyrant Maximillian, and to warn the tyrant Napoleon III to not interfere in the internal affairs of nations in the Western Hemisphere
Cinco de Mayo is not a holiday that should not be tainted with political or racist efforts to divide people. It definitely needs to remain a holiday for the Mexican people to proudly share their heritage with people in the U.S. as a gesture of friendship and a way in which people can come to understand one another and break down the prejudices and the propaganda that has been perpetrated by disgruntled, hate-filled, self-serving, quasi-political activists who seek to divide good people rather than unite them around positive productive or creative ideas and actions.
Cinco de Mayo should be a good day to remember a shared struggle of neighbors and a shared victory for freedom between friends.