The international scope of Cinco de Mayo


SAN JOSE, May 3, 2014 — The holiday of Cinco de Mayo takes on a special significance this year due to the efforts to “reform” immigration from Mexico.

The issues on immigration from our southern neighbor of Mexico have stirred considerable controversy in the recent years and has become overly politicized, with the two mainstream political parties scrambling for votes as well as future votes. However, despite the holiday of Cinco de Mayo becoming a very well known holiday throughout the United States, it remains relatively insignificant within Mexico, except perhaps in Mexico City or La Puebla. Despite the many festivities celebrated on this day all over America, they will not all express a simple celebration of Mexican heritage. Some celebrations will take on a political tone in relation to the current debate about immigration.

Despite this holiday existing from the middle of the 1800s in the United States, the average American may know only a little of the history behind the celebration, which may be true of those of Mexican heritage as well. Mexicans would probably know that Cinco de Mayo is not a celebration of Mexican Independence Day, which is actually celebrated in September each year, and is a key holiday throughout Mexico. Cinco de Mayo, literally translated means 5th of May, but it is not a day that is remotely comparable to the 4th of July, or American Independence Day. More Americans in southwestern states may have a greater understanding of Cinco de Mayo due to their proximity to Mexico; however, the holiday has been transplanted to communities all throughout the U.S. The holiday, in reality, is basically started as a remembrance of an extraordinary victory of Mexican patriots over a far superior French army.

One obvious question that is usually raised in connection to the last sentence, is why the French troops were in Mexico in the mid-1800s?

The French Army had been sent across the Atlantic to Vera Cruz, Mexico ostensibly to collect a debt owed by the Mexican government to the government of France. This action by the French was not unilateral – It was part of a concerted effort of three European governments that were attempting to collect on outstanding loans to Mexico.

It was indeed a very precarious time for Mexico, and the newly elected government of Benito Juarez. Following the aftermath of the Mexican Civil War of 1858, and the internal “Reform Wars” between liberal and conservative factions, a period of Mexican history  dominated by “La Reforma” came to a climax when democratic-minded liberals took control of the government in 1860. With a sincere intent to create a more modern Mexican civil society using the United States as a model for a stronger, more capitalistic-oriented economy, democratic-minded Mexicans won a great victory when the first Native American was elected to the presidency.

Unfortunately, such a political victory turned into a nightmare that ultimately led to a French takeover of the Juarez government. In March of 1861, around the time Abraham Lincoln was officially becoming the president of the United States, Benito Juarez, a Native American, was elected president of Mexico, and was provided a term of four years under their Constitution of 1857. Unfortunately, as Juarez soon discovered the real economic circumstances of the nation’s treasury. As a result of their Civil War, the Mexican government had nearly gone bankrupt, and in order to mitigate the indebtedness, the previous government found it necessary to borrow lots of money from the three colonial “superpowers” in Europe.

By July 17, 1861, after deliberation over his options, Juarez issued a moratorium aimed at suspending all foreign debt payments for a period of two years. It turned out to be a bad move. Representatives of the governments of France, Great Britain, and Spain met in London and signed a tripartite agreement to intervene in Mexico to recover the unpaid debts on October 31, 1861. Then, each government sent warships across the Atlantic. They were indeed warships and not vacation cruise ships embarking on a gulf coast retreat for the troops. The ships reached Veracruz by December 8th. The combine military force seized control of the custom house.

The intent of this troika was to camp out until the respective military pressure ensured that the loan payments would be made in a timely manner. The Juarez administration took the initiative to re-negotiate the loan terms, and the Mexican officials succeeded with the task with respect to Great Britain and Spain.  The envoys of these two European powers were able to satisfactorily renegotiate the outstanding debt with the Juarez administration, and they got back on their respective ships and sailed back to Europe. However, in dealing with the French representatives, the Mexican officials would not have been able to reach any satisfactory agreement due to the subversive plans of the French leader, Napoleon III.

After Spanish and British forces withdrew, the plans of Napoleon III ultimately began to emerge. It became apparent that he was interested in reviving the French global ambitions, following in the footsteps of his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon I). The French, under Emperor Napoleon III had cleverly decided to utilize the Mexican misfortune to establish an extension of the new French Empire into Americas. The French waited until Spring and then began marching from Veracruz to Mexico City, and the very first battle took place near the village of Puebla. On May 5, 1862, the very powerful French battalions met a serious setback: a rag-tag band of Mexican patriots defeated them. This surprising victory against the intruders galvanized the resolve if the Mexican freedom fighters.

It was an amazing victory for the outnumbered Mexican force over the superior military strength of the enemy. The French battalions with 8,000 troops encountered fierce resistance from the band of Mexican patriots made up of Mexican regulars and cavalry troops, as well as Mextec and Zapotec Indians and a local herd of cattle, which the Mexicans stampeded into the oncoming French troops. Despite outnumbering their foe by a margin of approximately 2:1, the better-trained, better-equipped, French force was soundly defeated in this battle. The Mexican General, Ignacio Zaragosa Sequin used everything and all manpower at his disposal, including the cattle.

Participation of the Mixtec and Zapotec Indians may only be a legend regarding this famous battle, and may have been because it is believed that Juarez was from either of these two tribes. Although it may make sense, and is the stuff of good legend, it is quite difficult to verify as any civilian involvement is not easily substantiated. Nonetheless, it is readily understandable as the area of the battle was near the Zapotec homelands in central Mexico, near the Mexican state of Oaxaca, which is where Juarez was born. It is not clear whether Juarez was of Zapotec or Mixtec descent, but he was a native son from Oaxaca who made good, and it could have played into his favor when needing native assistance in protecting the homeland.

Certainly, the normally well-disciplined French forces may have been unnerved by the stampeding cattle, but also by attacking Native Americans or civilians wielding machetes. Pitted against the guns of the French may have required impossible acts of bravery against the firepower of the French soldiers.  The Mexican cavalry were also apparently successful in their assault upon the French cavalry. May 5, 1862, turned out quite badly for the French onslaught against the Mexican people. The French were forced to retreat and regroup after this famous battle. Nevertheless, this was a mere setback to the ambitious Napoleon III, and the following year he sent more troops to Mexico.

The French swelled their forces to 30,000 troops and in July of 1863, the invaders took over Mexico City. The French had forced the Juarez government to flee to the north – ultimately to the city of El Paso del Norte, which is now known as Ciudad Juarez. It is from this location just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas that Benito Juarez established his government in exile. It is understood that in 1863, Napoleon III invited Maximilian von Habsburg, Archduke of Austria, and younger brother of the Emperor of Austriato become Emperor of Mexico. Maximillian accepted Napoleon’s gracious offer and on April 20, 1864, members of the Mexican aristocracy and the occupying French forces installed Maximillian the Emperor of Mexico.

During this entire period of invasion and occupation, the United States was essentially unable to do anything to enforce the Monroe Doctrine which considered such actions an act of war upon the U.S. as well as the nation in conflict. Maximillian’s coronation officially made Mexico a French colony, and his government took control over much of the country. However, Juarez and his supporters held on to the areas of northwestern Mexico near Ciudad Juarez and some parts of the Pacific coast. The U.S. had to be quite careful in any attempts to help the Juarez government because Texas was a Confederate state and any actions of U.S. troops would have to be covert as they would be operating behind enemy lines.

One of the great fears of the Lincoln administration was that the French, under Napoleon III and known for his unpredictable nature, were in a great position to aid the Confederacy. It was no secret the Confederate government had sent envoys to seek aid from European nations, and despite conflicts of opinion, there was a significant sentiment in Europe to allow the Confederate States of America to be free of federal intervention in their affairs. On the one hand it is hypocritical of the colonial powers, but there was obviously much at stake in the American Civil War. The Confederates came close to actually manufacturing ironclad ships in France, but delays ultimately led to the attempts being insignificant.

Some historians are of the opinion that French assistance to the Confederacy would have left a major impact upon the future of the United States of America. Certainly, by July of 1862, Lincoln felt grave concern over the inability of Union forces to defeat the Confederate Army, and he was aware of Napoleon III and his intervention in Mexico, who had already suggested to the U.S. that Great Britain, Russia, and France help negotiate the conflict between the North and South. Lincoln rejected the sly offer, and with the Union victory at Gettysburg in 1863, fourteen months after the Battle of Puebla, the tide of the war shifted. Had Lee prevailed at Gettysburg, European nations may have recognized the C.S.A.

After Gettysburg, Lincoln could breathe a bit easier and regained confidence. In 1864, Congress passed a resolution expressing opposition to the monarchy in Mexico. Lincoln developed a new policy regarding the Latin American crisis, which in addition to the Monroe Doctrine, addressed the issue of sovereignty of the autonomous nations in the Western Hemisphere. The Union prevailed over the Confederacy one year after Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant to be the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac. Sadly, Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865. Nonetheless, President Andrew Johnson pursued Lincoln’s precedent and took serious action to force the French to leave Mexico.

Amazingly, this incredible period of shared crisis is indelibly etched in the history of the two neighboring nations. Although the history of relations between Mexico and the U.S. is a bit rough, this very serious threat to Mexican sovereignty was met with decisive action to assist a neighbor in great need. In addition, the small victory at Puebla may have been the effort that caused even greater turmoil and tyranny to be averted. If nothing else, it is good enough to instill and retain mutual respect between the peoples, if not the governments of these two countries. It is good enough to celebrate the cultural heritage of neighbors.

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Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member at West Valley College in California. He currently writes a column on US history and one on American freedom for the Communities Digital News, as well as writing for other online publications. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he worked as the leader of a network of writers, bloggers, and editors who promoted the candidacy of Dr. Ben Carson. He founded the “We the People” Network of writers and the Citizen Sentinels Project to pro-actively promote the values and principles established at the founding of the United States, and to discover and support more morally centered citizen-candidates who sincerely seek election as public servants, not politicians.
  • Poblana

    the indigenous people who assisted in the battle were not Zapoteca, they were from Zacapoaxtla, near the City of Puebla (it was founded to be a city from the begining, it was never a village) so nothing to do with Juarez or Oaxaca