[Credit Jesse Greenspan's historical information site. No humor, just some
history!] Cinco de Mayo (May 5th), which takes place today, has become
enormously popular in the United States, often serving as a reason to throw
a “gran fiesta.” Yet despite its ubiquity, the holiday remains widely
misunderstood. In fact, many people still falsely believe it is Mexico’s
independence day, rather than a celebration of the undermanned Mexican
army’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla. To mark that
event’s 150th anniversary, here are seven other things you may not know
about Cinco de Mayo’s origins.
1. CIVIL WAR (1858-1861). The War of the Reform broke out in 1858 when
liberals drafted a new constitution aimed at reducing the power and
influence of the Catholic Church and wealthy landowners. Liberals under
Benito Juárez (former president of the supreme court) finally captured
Mexico City. The country remained starkly divided, however, with
conservatives plotting their revenge.
2. FAILING ECONOMY. After the War of Reform, Mexico had virtually no money
in its treasury and owed tens of millions of dollars to foreign debtors.
President Juárez suspended payment of all foreign debt for two years, a move
that prompted an immediate invasion from Spain, France and Great Britain.
With the United States too distracted by its own Civil War to enforce the
Monroe Doctrine, troops from those three European powers began arriving in
Vera Cruz in late 1861. 6,000 French troops pushed inland toward the
capital, backed by Mexico’s vanquished conservative leaders.
3. WORLD POWER. In 1862, the French had one of the best armies in the world.
Arriving at Puebla on May 4, they were coming off a series of victories in
Southeast Asia and Northern Africa and were loaded with firepower, including
long-range rifles that put the Mexicans’ smooth-bore muskets to shame. They
were so overconfident, in fact, that they didn’t even bother to properly
prepare their artillery. On the morning of May 5, the French tried to
intimidate the Mexicans with screeching bugle calls and advanced bayonet
maneuvers. But after a full day of fighting, including three unsuccessful
uphill charges, they were forced to retreat with heavy casualties.
4. MINOR SETBACK. After losing the Battle of Puebla on Cinco de Mayo, France
went on to win the war. In the wake of the battle, an infuriated Emperor
Napoleon III ordered 30,000 more troops sent to Mexico. This time they
overran Puebla and easily conquered Mexico City. Juárez and his supporters
then fled to the mountains to conduct guerilla operations while Napoleon III
installed Ferdinand Maximilian von Habsburg (second in line to the
Austro-Hungarian throne) as Mexico’s ruler.
5. OCCUPYING ARMY. In France, Napoleon III was growing increasingly
concerned that Prussia, fresh off victories against Denmark and Austria,
would next try to reclaim the perpetually disputed territories of Alsace and
Lorraine. Meanwhile, the Civil War had wrapped up, and U.S. officials were
exerting diplomatic pressure on the French and supplying weapons to Juárez’s
army. With his coffers running low, Napoleon III decided in 1866 to end
France’s occupation of Mexico.
6. NEW DAY FOR MEXICO. Porfirio Díaz, Mexico’s longest-serving president,
was a relatively unknown cavalry commander until the Battle of Puebla, where
he outflanked the French on their third charge and sent them into a
disorderly retreat. After the Juárez government floundered, Diaz launched a
coup, finally seizing power in 1876.
7. CINCO de MAYO IS A US HOLIDAY! May 5th is more widely celebrated in
parts of the United States than in Mexico. While Juárez declared Cinco de
Mayo a holiday immediately after the Battle of Puebla, for most Mexicans it
has always taken a backseat to Independence Day (September 16, 1810). In the
US, cities with large Hispanic populations use it as a time to celebrate
Latino heritage and wonderful foods!
Dr Bob Griffin
“Jesus Knows Me, This I Love!”