So everybody knows that Cindo de Mayo is Spanish for “May 5th,” and it’s Mexico’s Independence Day, right? Wrong.
Cindo de Mayo actually celebrates the Battle of Puebla, an 1862 victory over France. Mexico’s Independence Day marks the freedom obtained in 1821, after an 11 year war against Spain, and is celebrated September 16.
There’s a big difference.
Part 1: Pre-Battle History
In 1862, forty-one years after the Mexican War of Independence, Britain, Spain and France marched into the Estados Unidos Mexicanos demanding their debt money. Mexico, however, was broke.
The Reform War (a civil war between Liberals and Conservatives) had left the country in shambles. It ended just a year prior to this diplomatic visit, and forced President Benito Juarez to suspend all foreign loan reimbursement.
After shaking down a penniless Mexico, Britain & Spain realized they weren’t getting anywhere and accepted warrants of payment. They went home, leery of France, who still wanted to slap Mexico around a little.
It’s quite possible Le France (ruled by Napoeleon III) had ulterior motives. At this time, the U.S. was engaged in a Civil War between the Northern Union and Southern Confederate states. France was allied with the Confederates and might have used Mexico’s debt money to aid the slave-loving territories.
Rassling some Yankees would have to wait, though. First, France had to rope in Mexico.
Part 2: Down & Dirty
The famous French-Mexican stand-off occurred in the heavily-fortified city of Puebla. General Ignacio Zaragoza (a Texas-born Mexican) defended the city with 4,000 soldiers who were primarily farmers with old rifles and machetes.
In contrast, France was 8,000 strong and equipped with more modern weaponry.
Charles de Lorencez (a French general) decided against all advice and opened fire on Zaragoa’s men, who were huddled in a long trench between two hilltop forts.
Lorencez, showing more infinite wisdom, underestimated the Mexican Republican garrison and the willingness of its people. He ordered three separate attacks on the entrenched troops, and each time he failed to seize their ground. Lorencez exhausted all ammunition after the second attack, and commanded unsupported soldiers for the third.
The French retreated, and Zaragoza’s cavalry successfully charged their flanks. When it started raining in the late afternoon, battlefield conditions worsened. France further withdrew, and when no more attacks came from Zaragoza, they retreated completely.
Mexico lost 83 men, with 131 wounded and 12 missing. France lost 462 men, with 300 wounded and 8 captured.
Stuff that into a croissant and eat it, Napoleon III.
Part 3: Cultural Impact
After the victory, Zaragoza sent a famous message to Mexico City stating “Las armas nacionales se han cubierto de gloria” or “The national arms have covered themselves in glory.” President Juarez declared May 5th a national holiday, commemorating the underdog victory against powerhouse France.
It was a short-lived win, though. France later sent 27,000 troops and seized Mexico City the next year. They captured Puebla and placed Maximilian of Austria in charge. He was Emperor of Mexico for three years, before President Juarez regained control.
General Zaragoza had died of typhoid by then, but the important thing to remember is:
In the face of adversity, and when all odds were stacked against them, Mexico’s ragtag militia defeated France’s robust forces. The Battle of Puebla, although a mere chink in French armor, was an emotional victory for all Mexican citizens.
There were parades, dances and banquets that strengthened camaraderie. For a brief time after the Civil War, Mexican and U.S veterans festively dressed in uniform and gave Cinco de Mayo speeches.
The stories were passed down from generation to generation, until they were inevitably transformed by American commercialism.
Part 4: Modern Traditions
In the 1980’s, corporations began using Cinco de Mayo for the promotion of beverages and products to Latino communities.
There are still many wholesome activities including traditional Mexican dancing, concerts and war reenactments. Mexican schoolchildren get a day off school and a military parade is televised nationally from Puebla.
The festivities that might come to mind first, though, are margarita specials large enough to require diving boards and cheap tacos at your local Taquería. You can even find piñatas with small bottles of vodka inside. I would know. We had one at my 21st birthday.
Sometimes you’ll find a mariachi band playing at the nearby tapas bar, and an endless seas of nachos to complete the cliché.
While there’s no harm is celebrating an event that has absolutely nothing to do with your own heritage, it’s the least anyone can do to understand Cinco de Mayo’s history.
I will repeat, it’s not Mexico’s Independence Day.