This weekend, many of Mexican origin and descent will celebrate Cinco de Mayo. It is a holiday in, Puebla, Mexico. There will be beers, tequila, margaritas and food galore. There will be parties celebrated in homes and in bars, on the streets and in squares. But what’s the reason for these celebrations? Why is this date so revered?
Let’s start with what it is NOT. It is not Mexican independence. That auspicious event is celebrated on September 15th into the 16th, commemorating the Grito de Dolores made by Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. But we’ll discuss that later this year! Cinco de Mayo, venerates another victory of the Mexican spirit over the binds of European colonialism. To many, especially in the United States, it is also a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage. Its origins are found in the Battle of Puebla.
Independence officially declared in 1821.
Battle of Puebla won in 1862.
Like almost every other newly independent Latin American nation, Mexico’s post-colonial years brought little more than civil strife and regional segregation. The criollo elite, who were now in power found their political ideology divided. There were those who preferred to maintain the status quo dictated by their former European masters (the Conservatives) and those who preferred a more reformist system of governance (the Liberals). The battle between Conservative and Liberals, across the continent, was long, vicious, bloody and all-consuming. Many of the staunchest believers on either side would often put political ideology ahead of national pride. Such was the case in Mexico.
1860 dawned over a Mexico led by Benito Juárez, a man of indigenous origin, and in control of the Liberal Party. Policies aimed at weakening the power of the Church, had the desired effect of removing the support base of the Conservative Party. Severely weakened, the Conservatives would continue to make deadly attacks on the provinces of Mexico, but it was clear that The War of The Reform had favoured the Liberals.
During the war, fighters on both sides had attacked the silver trains belonging to French and British nationals as they made their way across the country. There was also widespread looting of properties belonging to foreigners. A combined naval force of the Spanish, French and British arrived in Veracruz in 1862 to collect reparations and debts owed to their citizens and governments. This European union would not last long, however. The Spanish and British, withdrew after negotiating with Mexico and refusing to support France’s intention of establishing a colony on Mexican soil.
Some stalwart Conservative believers, who had been exiled, turned to foreign assistance to settle their national grudges. They convinced the easily persuadable Emperor of France, Napoleon III, that the Mexican people desired ‘liberation’ from Juárez and the Liberals by the French Army and would welcome the establishment of a monarchy. Napoleon III had imperial aspirations and dreamt of creating a colonial empire south of the United States. A suitable royal leader was identified in Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Hapsburg, brother of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef.
Conservative Mexicans lied to Maximilian. They understated the popularity Juárez had amongst the Mexican people; and they overstated Maximilian’s potential support. In preparation for the new European leader’s arrival in Mexico, French forces moved westward from Veracruz towards the interior via the town of Puebla de los Angeles.
On May 5, 1862, at Puebla, the French were met not as great liberators, but as invaders to be destroyed. A poorly armed but ferociously determined Mexican garrison, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza faced off against the militarily superior French who suffered heavy losses at Mexican hands. Some reports have estimated anywhere approaching 1000 casualties on the French side. On the Mexican, less than 200 were affected. Cinco de Mayo became a day to celebrate the triumph of the indomitable Mexican people over imperialism. Yet despite victory that day, Mexico would remain under French rule for three short years.
The French secured control over several major cities and Liberal guerillas controlled most of the Mexican territory and continued on the offensive. Eventually, Maximilian, being fairly moderate himself, would lose the support of the Conservatives when he refused to reinstate the Church to its previous position of power. He would also face opposition from the United States after they emerged from their own Civil War. Even Napoleon III abandoned Maximilian, needing to deal with more pressing matters in France. Despite, pleas from Europe for his release, Maximilian would be tried for treason and put to death by firing squad.
For a more detailed account of the actual Battle of Puebla see Warfare History Network.
Crow, John A. The Epic of Latin America. 3rd ed., University of California Press, 1992.
Keen, Benjamin, and Keith Haynes. A History of Latin America. 8th ed., Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009.