Cinco de Mayo: Celebrating Mexico’s victory over France

Cinco de Mayo dancers
Cinco de Mayo dancers

CHICAGO, May 2, 2014 — Cinco de Mayo is a day of celebration for citizens of Mexico and for Mexicans here in the U.S. as well. But what exactly is being celebrated?

Unlike our 4th of July, the 5th of May is not Mexican Independence Day. That’s September 16. Independence Day, or Grito de Dolores, is much more widely celebrated in Mexico than Cinco de Mayo, which is recognized mainly in the Mexican state of Puebla.

So what is all the celebrating about? Cinco de Mayo commemorates a hard-won victory for Mexico over the French. Yes, the French.

Battle of Puebla, Cinco de Mayo
Battle of Puebla, Cinco de Mayo

In 1861, more than 50 years after Grito de Dolores inspired Mexicans to oust Spain, Mexico found itself deeply in debt due to years of almost continual war. Sound familiar?

While al Qaeda and the Taliban were not yet on the global map, the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the Mexican Civil War (1858), and the Reform Wars of 1860, which pitted Liberals, who wanted a strong federalist government, against Conservatives, who wanted religion to maintain its powerful role (anyone else see a pattern here?), had left the Mexican coffers pretty empty and the country near bankruptcy.

What’s a struggling country to do? In the mid-19th century, euro-style bailouts were not an option, so President Benito Juarez made the executive decision to welch on his country’s foreign debt. Not completely, mind you. He just decided not to pay anybody for two years.

Still, Britain, Spain, and France, Mexico’s largest debt-holders, were not amused and sent their naval forces to collect. Britain and Spain renegotiated Mexico’s obligations, but France got greedy. Napoleon III was in an empire-building mood, and he had what was considered one of the best military forces of the time. French troops captured Veracruz and headed for Mexico City.

On the way, the 8,000 well-armed French bullies decided to attack a Mexican contingent near Puebla that was half their size and considerably less armed.

The date was May 5. Cinco de Mayo. Guess who won?

The Mexican victory at Puebla gave the country a sense of unity and a renewed belief in their strength after years of external and internal strife. Mexican national pride soared, fueling Mexico’s eventual triumph over Napoleon III.

Never mind that a year later France sent 30,000 troops back into Mexico, captured Mexico City, and declared Maximilian I Emperor of Mexico. He was only there for three years, anyway. Once the U.S. Civil War ended, we gave Mexico a little help and they were able to send the French packing once again.

To sum it all up, years of war left Mexico unable to pay its debt, some countries renegotiated, one country decided to spread its governmental influence, things went back and forth for a while, and then the U.S. intervened in a struggle taking place in another part of the world which may or may not have been any of our business in the first place.

U.S. intervention was justified, however, as Napoleon III had intended to use his stronghold in Mexico to support the Confederacy. Well, that was the rumor, anyway. Looking at all of the surrounding history can still leave one wondering exactly what is celebrated on Cinco de Mayo.

The Mexican army was victorious at Puebla, but the French came back a year later and took over.

What gets lost in the narrative is that after years of civil war and the divisive Reform War, the victory at Puebla gave Mexico a powerful unified national identity. Mexico was strong. Mexico was proud.

In 1861, Cinco de Mayo was a day that Mexico showed the world what it was capable of.

Today, Cinco de Mayo is a day when Mexican-Americans celebrate the strength, pride and cultural identity that are all part of their heritage. That is worth celebrating. That is what all the fuss is about.

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