Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

Here in the United States, and in my hometown of Fullerton in particular, the Mexican-American holiday Cinco de Mayo is mainly an excuse to drink.  It is sometimes casually referred to as "Drinko de Mayo" or "Cinco de Drinko."  Unlike other holidays like Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July, which people generally understand the reasons for, most people (at least Americans) are horribly ignorant about the origins of Cinco de Mayo.  When I asked my students about the reasons for Cinco de Mayo, many of them shrugged their shoulders.  A few thought it was Mexican Independene Day, which it is not.  Mexican Independence Day is September 16th.  A handful knew it had something to do with a battle with France.  But almost no one, myself included, knew the real story behind America's most popular Mexican holiday.  


Yesterday, I was browsing in my local neighborhood video store, VIDEOMAX2 (Yes, my neighborhood has a video store, a type of establishment that is sadly going the way of the buffalo).  VIDEOMAX2 has a nice selection of movies en Espanol, and I like to rent these sometimes to brush up on my Spanish, and to get some Latino culture.  Yesterday, I rented a relatively new film called Cinco de Mayo: La Batalla, which I was delighted to learn tells the historical events behind the Cinco de Mayo holiday.  The movie is not great, but it is informative.  Here's what I learned.


In the early 1860s, Mexico was nearly bankrupt after decades of war.  From 1810-1821, they'd fought, and won, their Independence from Spain.  From 1846-1848, they'd fought against the United States in the Mexican-American War (which resulted in the loss of nearly half of their country).  In the 1850s, there was a Mexican Civil War and the Reform Wars, in which the liberal leader Benito Juarez and his troops fought against the conservative Mexican aristocracy and their forces.  Ultimately Juarez won, but after so much war and desolation, Mexico was nearly bankrupt and war weary.  They owed money to various European nations: England, Spain, and France.

Benito Juarez

The defeated Mexican aristocrats conspired with the French Emperor Napoleon III (nephew and heir of Napoleon Bonaparte) to invade a weakened Mexico and establish a French monarchy there which would be friendly to the Mexican aristocrats.  France had aspirations of expanding their empire in the Americas.  Once they invaded Mexico, they planned to team up with the Confederate Army in the United States to defeat President Lincoln and his Union Army (this was during the American Civil War).  

Napoleon III

On May 5th (Cinco de Mayo), 1862, the French Army invaded the region of Puebla and attacked Benito Juarez's forces, which were led by General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin.   Despite being outnumbered almost 2-1, the Mexican army fought valiantly and defeated the French army, successfully deflecting the French invasion and conquest.  Although the French would return a year later and temporarily occupy Mexico, the Battle of Puebla was an important victory not just for the fledgling Mexican nation, but for the United States as well.  Mexico's defeat of France also helped the cause of Lincoln and the Union Army.  Because of their defeat, France temporarily suspended their aid to the Confederate Army, and were not able to assist them.  Some historians have argued that, had Mexico not won the Battle of Puebla, the Civil War might have turned out differently, and altered the course of American history.  After the battle, President Lincoln sent a letter personally thanking President Juarez, General Zaragoza, and the Mexican Army for their defense of freedom in America.


That, essentially, is the story of Cinco de Mayo.  It is a complex story, involving 19th century geo-politics, and it signifies an event that was pivotal not just for Mexico's history, but also for the history of the United States.  Cinco de Mayo is celebrated every year in Puebla, Mexico, where it is known as El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla (The Day of the Battle of Puebla).  Interestingly, some of the first people to celebrate Cinco de Mayo were Latinos in the American west, who saw it as a victory for freedom in the early years of the American Civil War.  I guess Cinco de Mayo is both a Mexican and an American holiday, and it represents the interconnected history of our two countries.

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