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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cinco de Mayo

United State Post Office issue in 1998.

My Mexican friends have always reacted angrily when the fifth of May is referred to as Mexican Independence Day (which is actually September 16th).  For good reason - Cinco de Mayo is an American Civil War holiday celebrated all over the United States, but virtually ignored in Mexico outside of the state of Puebla.

Mexico was involved in several wars in the latter half of the 1800s.  In the aftermath of the Mexican-American war of 1846 - 1848, a civil war in 1858, and the Reform War in 1860, the government was virtually bankrupt.  President Benito Juárez asked for a two-year moratorium from paying foreign loans.  In response, Spain, Britain, and France sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand repayment. Britain and Spain negotiated a deal and withdrew their forces, but France had ulterior motives in mind.

The Charge of the Mexican Cavalry at the Battle of Puebla.

It was feared that France sought to back the Confederacy and weaken the United States as a whole.  By establishing a base in Mexico, France would be in a good position to do that.  The Union could not afford to fight both France and the Confederacy simultaneously.  Napoleon III (nephew of THE Napoleon), upon hearing that Spain and Britain were sending naval forces to Veracruz, decided to send both naval and army forces, and began to consider who he would install as emperor in Mexico.  With the United States occupied with its civil war, he couldn't miss this opportunity to gain a foothold in the Americas.

Benito Pablo Juárez Garcia circa 1868.

In late 1861 the well-armed French troops invaded Veracruz and drove President Juárez and his forces into retreat.  The French had not been defeated in war in fifty years, and had 8,000 men; the Mexican army was half of that number - 4,000 men. Moving toward Mexico City, the French met heavy resistance, and were defeated at Puebla.  This was a huge boost in morale for the Mexican army and the Mexican people.  However, the defeat was short-lived.  A year later the French captured Mexico City and put Maximilian I of the House of Habsburg to rule as Emperor of Mexico.

Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico.

Maximilian I's rule was also short-lived.  After three years (1864-1867), it ended when the U.S. provided assistance to Mexico, which it could afford to do since the Civil War was over.  Following a court martial, Maximilian I was sentenced to death.  Despite many prominent figures and crowned heads of Europe who pled for his life to be spared, Juárez refused to commute the sentence.  He felt it was necessary to send the message that Mexico would not tolerate foreign rule.  The execution was carried out by firing squad on June 19, 1867.

The body of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico in 1867.

A paper published by the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture in 2007, states the origin of the observation of Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. first started in California in the 1860s to honor that resistance to French rule in Mexico. The study notes that the date has been celebrated in California since 1863.  The holiday was spontaneously created by Mexicans and Latinos living in California.

Children in traditional dress celebrating.  Image courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Today it is recognized as a day to celebrate the culture of Americans of Mexican ancestry, much like the Chinese-Americans, Irish-Americans, and German-Americans have Chinese New Year, St. Patrick's Day, and Oktoberfest, respectively, to celebrate their ethnicities.  On June 7, 2005, a Joint Resolution by Congress called on the President to issue a proclamation bidding the people of the U.S. to observe Cinco de Mayo with activities befitting the Mexican culture.

Of course, the celebration has been heartily embraced by the food and beverage industries, and has become a commercial success:

Image courtesy sandiegolist.com

If the Mexicans had not defeated the French at Puebla, and France had been able to easily take over Mexico, the course of United States history may have gone a very different route.  With French backing the Confederacy may have successfully ceded from the Union, and the U.S. would probably not have become a super power. Mucho gracias, Mexico!

Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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