Cinco de Mayo: A History

posted on 4/20/14

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It may surprise you to learn that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day (September 16th), as many Americans believe. Stranger still (especially in light of this fact), Cinco de Mayo is celebrated more widely in the United States than in Mexico, where it is primarily a regional celebration. The holiday commemorates the Battle of Puebla, a surprising but ultimately inconsequential victory that the Mexican army won over the invading French, and its significance in Mexican history is far more symbolic than tangible.


So why do so many people celebrate Cinco de Mayo every year? To understand that, we’ll need to take a look at the strange and complex history between Mexico, the United States and France.




Setting the Stage: The Reform War
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In the wake of Mexico’s War of Independence, the newly liberated country had to contend with a new foe: itself. After decades of being subject to Spanish colonial power, the populace was split between the Conservatives, who wanted to retain some vestiges of the old power structure—a strong, centralized state, possibly even a monarchy, with the military and the Catholic Church playing key roles—and the Liberals, who drew inspiration from the ideas of the European Enlightenment, and wanted to see the establishment of a Democratic federation. When the Liberals rose to power in the 1850’s, they sought to drastically scale back the power and influence of the Church and military, much to the agitation of the Conservative minority. These tensions came to a head in 1858, when Conservatives and the military demonstrated their displeasure with the new reforms by affecting a takeover of the nation’s capital, Mexico City. The displaced Liberal government established its headquarters at Veracruz, and thus began the Reform War.


Lasting from approximately 1858 to 1861, this bloody civil war eventually ended with a victory for the Liberal party and their president Benito Juarez. However, the cessation of formal hostilities did little to ease tensions between the two opposing factions. What’s more, President Juarez had accrued millions of pesos in debt by accepting wartime loans from France, England and Spain. With the end of the Reform War came the time to settle this debt.




The Blockade
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By 1861, the Reform War had essentially bankrupted Mexico. President Juarez, unable to repay the country’s debts, issued a suspension of interest payments to foreign governments, promising to resume payment after an interval of two years. France, England and Spain, the country’s main creditors, formed a coalition whose aim was to put pressure on Mexico to repay its debt by blockading its major points, effectively crippling its capacity for trade. This arrangement, known as the Treaty of London, specified that none of the countries were to make any financial, political or territorial gain from their joint military actions. However, it soon became clear to the other parties that France’s true intention was to launch a full-scale invasion of Mexico, at which point both England and Spain withdrew their support of the campaign.




The French Intervention
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France, under the rule of Napoleon III, was considered to be the premier military power of the age—it had not suffered a noteworthy military setback since the defeat of Napoleon I by Allied forces at Waterloo, almost 50 years earlier. But Napoleon III was wary of the United States, an up-and-coming world superpower that posed a grave potential threat to France’s primacy on the world stage. With this in mind, Napoleon III reasoned that it would be advantageous to have an ally in North America, and sought to establish a new Mexican Empire to this end. The timing of this plan was particularly important, coming as it did while the United States was preoccupied with its own long and costly civil war. Napoleon III knew that, though the United States objected to a French presence in Mexico, it would be powerless to intervene while it was engaged in an expensive and bloody conflict. Furthermore, he hoped to neutralize the threat of the United States by coming to the aid of the Confederacy, thus ensuring that America would be split into two rival states, and seriously hindering its ability to become a threat on the world stage.




The Battle of Puebla – May 5th, 1862
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Having already secured the coastal city of Veracruz with the help of its former allies, England and Spain, the French army began its march inland, presumably looking to take Mexico City. Along their route was the city of Puebla. The French army, headed by the General Charles de Lorencez, attacked the city on the morning of May 5th, 1862 with a formation of 6,000 seasoned French troops. Puebla was defended by General Zaragoza, who headed a ragtag militia of about 4,000 troops, many of them local agricultural workers who were ill-equipped for war. Lorencez, whether out of arrogance or due to the mistaken belief that Puebla’s population was sympathetic to the French and would join the invaders at the first sign of force, ordered a head-on charge on the city’s northern garrison, the most heavily fortified point in the defenders’ line. This proved a disastrous mistake. General Zaragoza’s resistance, employing the guerilla tactics that they had cultivated during the Reform War, forced Lorencez’s battalion to beat a hasty retreat by mid-afternoon, leaving 463 of its men on the battlefield. Zaragoza had lost only 83.




The Aftermath
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In the wake of this shameful defeat, the French army was forced to return to Veracruz and regroup. Lorencez was dismissed from his post and replaced with General Forey, who besieged and successfully defeated the city of Puebla the following spring. The French continued their conquest of Mexico, aided along the way by Conservative factions who wished to see a return to monarchy, eventually installed the Hapsburg noble Maximilian I as the first and only Emperor of the short-lived Second Mexican Empire. Influenced by the Enlightenment ideals, Maximilian was a moderate and liberal-minded Emperor, but this won him no favor from either the staunch Conservatives, who had aided his ascension, or the fiery Liberals, who rejected any non-representative form of government. Following the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865, President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses S. Grant dispatched a force of 50,000 men to aid in the Mexican rebellion against Imperial authority. Seeing the tides begin to turn, the French withdrew their troops in 1866, and by May of 1867 President Juarez had regained control of Mexico. He had Emperor Maximilian I executed by firing squad. His final words, in Spanish, were as follows: “I forgive everyone, and I ask everyone to forgive me. May my blood which is about to be shed be for the good of the country. Viva Mexico, viva la independencia!”




Significance of Cinco de Mayo
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Readers who have made it to the end of this article may be puzzled that the Battle of Puebla (which Cinco de Mayo commemorates) seems to be the merest footnote in a vastly more complicated story. This is the way it often is with history—complex tales get reduced to simple headlines as they recede into the past, and the symbolic importance of some events begins to overshadow the material importance of others in the cultural consciousness. The material importance of Cinco de Mayo is hard to gauge and endlessly debatable—it halted the progress of the French army for half a year, and the blow that it dealt to French morale was reflected in the confidence gained by the Mexican resistance. Some historians argue that the confluence of these factors were crucial to buying time for the United States to conclude the Civil War, thus foiling Napoleon III’s aims to upset America while it was weak, but these are questions we can never really answer for certain.


Inarguable, however, is the immense symbolic significance of Cinco de Mayo. After centuries of conquest and subjugation by European explorers, the heroes at Puebla finally achieved a startling upset on behalf of Latin America. The French, who at that time were a premiere world power, were routed and humiliated by a band of untrained Mexican resistors. And though it did not ultimately save Mexico from being placed under the yoke of Empire, it still stands as perhaps the most stunning rebukes to Colonial or Imperial power on the part of Latin Americans.




Now that you know the significance of the holiday, celebrate in style! Check out these great decorations and accessories for your Cinco de Mayo event:


Mexican Fiesta Table Runner
12″ Mexican Flag
3′ x 5′ Mexican Flag
6 Cinco de Mayo Paper Fan Decorations
6 Cinco de Mayo Paper Lantern Decorations

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  1. Pingback: Know Your Parties: Cinco De Mayo - Privateislandparty.com Blog

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