Cinco de Mayo

By Neal Erickson

On May 5 , 1862, near the city of Puebla, a Mexican force of about 4,000 approached an invading French army that was twice its size and better equipped. The French had landed at Veracruz and were intent on capturing Mexico City, which would give them control of the government and thus the country. The soldiers clashed and the Mexicans routed the French decisively with clever strategy and fierce fighting.

Every year, May 5 marks the remembrance of that important victory in battle for the Mexican people. Although some unfamiliar with Mexican history think it’s the day celebrating Mexican Independence. The date is remembered, but not broadly celebrated in Mexico outside the city and state of Puebla.

Mexico had borrowed heavily from the English, Spanish and French in the 1846-48 war with the U.S., and then again during their civil wars between 1858 and 1860. In 1861, the victorious President Benito Juarez faced ruinous national debt, and declared a temporary suspension of payment on those debts. This caused serious concern among the Europeans, and prompted them to send emissaries to Mexico to assure further payment.

The English and Spanish eventually were satisfied with their agreements and withdrew, but Napoleon III of France had a different agenda, and landed troops in Veracruz. Many historians think that because the Americans were embroiled in their own Civil War, Napoleon saw this as an opportunity to establish a French-controlled Mexico, not only to take wealth from its resources, but also to more effectively supply the U.S. Confederacy thus helping to split and forever weaken the United States. When the Mexicans met and defeated the French troops at the Battle of Puebla, it slowed the French ambitions considerably.

Subsequently Napoleon III sent 30,000 more troops into Mexico, and in 1864 they succeeded in establishing Maximillian as Emperor of Mexico. In the spring of 1865 however, the U.S. Civil War was over and France’s larger plans were thwarted. Two years later, after continued bloody fighting between the rebellious Mexican forces and the supporters of the Emperor, Maximillian was deposed, and executed by firing squad. President Benito Juarez returned to Mexico City, and Mexico was again independent. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, and then President Andrew Johnson had been supporters of Benito Juarez, and the United States had been a big supplier of the rebellion.

Today there are commemorative events and military parades held in the state of Puebla and in Mexico City on May 5, but very little in the rest of Mexico with the exception of a few of the communities near the U.S. border. Across the U.S., however, many of those cities with significant Mexican-American population centers have a full week of concerts, parades and th various events leading up to May 5 . Generally, most of the promotional expense and effort is provided by food, drink, and service businesses related to Mexico and Mexican culture. Mexico’s extensively celebrated actual Independence Day is September 16 .

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