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Battle of Puebla

Battle of Puebla

The American victory at Cerro Gordo in April 1847 was followed by what was anticipated to be a major effort against the town of Puebla. However, local officials decided to open their gates to the advancing army in the hope of preserving their town. Slight resistance was put up by Santa Anna's retreating army, but American forces occupied Puebla in mid-May.The heaviest toll in this engagement was taken by the town's tainted water supply, which incapacitated hundreds of Winfield Scott's soldiers. The able-bodied then advanced toward Contreras.


French Intervention in Mexico: Battle of Puebla

The Battle of Puebla was fought May 5, 1862 and occurred during the French intervention in Mexico. Landing a small army in Mexico in early 1862 under the pretense of forcing the repayment of Mexican debts, France soon moved to conquer the country. As the United States was occupied with its own Civil War and could not intervene, the government of Napoleon III saw an opportunity to install a friendly regime while gaining access to Mexico's natural resources.

Advancing from Veracruz, French forces drove inland before engaging the Mexicans outside of Puebla. Though outnumbered and outclassed, the Mexicans successfully repulsed the French assaults on the city and forced them to retreat. Despite the fact that French forces succeeded in taking control of the country a year later, the date of the victory at Puebla inspired the holiday that has evolved into Cinco de Mayo.


Cinco de Mayo in the United States

In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is widely interpreted as a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in areas with substantial Mexican-American populations. Chicano activists raised awareness of the holiday in the 1960s, in part because they identified with the victory of indigenous Mexicans over European invaders during the Battle of Puebla. Today, revelers mark the occasion with parades, parties, mariachi music, Mexican folk dancing and traditional foods such as tacos and mole poblano. Some of the largest festivals are held in Los Angeles,Colorado, Chicago and Houston.


2. European troops invaded because Mexico was broke.

After the War of Reform, Mexico had virtually no money in its treasury and owed tens of millions of dollars to foreign debtors. The sale of expropriated church property brought very little relief. As a result, newly elected President Juárez suspended payment of all foreign debt for two years, a move that prompted an immediate backlash from Spain, France and Great Britain. With the United States too consumed by the Civil War to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, troops from those three European powers began arriving in Veracruz in late 1861. Spain and Great Britain almost immediately withdrew, but about 6,000 French troops pushed inland toward the capital, backed by Mexico’s vanquished conservative leaders.


Landmarks

Aztec Sites
Cholula is home to many Aztec ruins, most notably Mexico’s largest pyramid, which also happens to be one of the biggest monuments in the world. This magnificent structure was built to venerate the god of the rain, Chiconahui Quiahuitl. Soil and vegetation now cover much of the pyramid, giving it the appearance of a large hill, but some portions have been excavated to reveal its former glory.

Colonial Sites
The buildings of Puebla provide impressive examples of Baroque architecture. The towers of Catedral Basílica de Puebla, located in the city’s main square, are the highest in Mexico. The Iglesia de Santo Domingo-Capilla del Rosario features ornate stonework and gilded plaster.

Other religious buildings in Puebla are the Templo de San Francisco and the Templo de Santo Domingo, which were built during the 16th and 17th centuries. Military installations include the 19th-century forts of Loreto and Guadalupe, which wasS erected on a hill to provide a strategic overview of the city.


Fractured Foundations

To understand the Battle of Puebla, it is necessary to understand the roots of Mexico itself, going back to the 16th century. After Spain defeated the Aztec Empire in 1521, a new, blended society arose in Mexico, bringing together several different cultures. Finding a balance between its pre-Hispanic roots and new European identity proved challenging.

For three centuries after Cortés’s invasion, España Nueva (New Spain) was the most important overseas province of the Spanish Empire. It was ruled by a viceroyalty made up of many indigenous aristocratic families who had sought an alliance with the Spanish in order to defeat the Aztec Empire. Even so, resentment and tensions between Mexican natives, the Spanish, and the criollos—those of European origin who had been born in America—continued to grow, creating a shaky basis for the colony.

In 1808 Spain was invaded by the Napoleonic armies, which weakened Spanish control of New Spain. Many of the colonists wanted independence, and like many other colonies in the New World, they seized their moment and rebelled. On September 16, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a priest and political leader in the central Mexican town of Dolores, exhorted Mexicans to rise up in a fiery speech delivered from his pulpit—the “Cry of Dolores.” War followed, ending with Mexico’s defeat of Spain in 1821. Hidalgo became the father of his country, and September 16 is celebrated as Mexico’s Independence Day.

Path to Puebla

In January 1862 European forces disembarked at Veracruz. Despite the diplomatic triumph at La Soledad, after which Spanish and British troops decided to withdraw, French forces seemed poised to march on Mexico City. On March 6, with Mexican commander Ignacio Zaragoza already facing a vastly superior foe, disaster struck. A huge arms dump on the outskirts of San Andrés Chalchicomula was accidently detonated, killing hundreds of soldiers and civilians and depleting Zaragoza’s reserves of munitions. Meanwhile, General Lorencez, the French commander, advanced across the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains at the Cumbres de Acultzingo, was met by General Zaragoza on April 28, who, despite admirable resistance, was forced to retreat under the intensity of the French attack. The French swept relentlessly on, aiming for the interior. The next major obstacle was Puebla, which they reached on May 5.

Even though the colonists had been united in a desire to be free, Mexicans were divided over the direction of their new nation. For the next 40 years, internal tensions wracked the country. Liberals, conservatives, and centralists all clashed as they sought to define Mexico’s future.

Internal upheaval and economic fragility were compounded by war with the United States in the 1840s. Disputes over control of Texas drew Mexico into a two-year conflict with its northern neighbor in 1846. In a humiliating surrender, Mexico ceded to the United States its claims to Texas, Utah, Nevada, and California, along with swaths of what are now Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Wyoming in 1848.

Reeling from the defeat, political tensions increased. The liberal faction favored the separation of church and state and freedom of religion, while the conservatives wanted to maintain ties between Mexico’s government and the Catholic Church. Another internal conflict ensued, later known as the Reform War, which ended in 1860 with a liberal victory. The next year, Benito Juárez became president. Born to Mesoamerican parents, Juárez would soon become a crucial player in the Cinco de Mayo story.

Following the liberal resumption of power, disaffected conservatives approached France’s Napoleon III to intervene. The French ruler was only too keen to move into the space left by the crumbling Spanish Empire, as well as provide a check on the expansion of the United States. Napoleon III also had a perfect excuse to invade: an 80-million-peso debt Mexico owed to European nations, including France.


The 20 Most Fascinating Facts About the History of Cinco de Mayo

There's a lot you may not know about this Mexican holiday!

Cinco de Mayo is a hugely popular holiday in the United States &mdash but if you ask around, you may find that not everyone is exactly sure what they're celebrating, or why. While most people know that the holiday is rooted in Mexican history, there's some misconceptions and false information surrounding the celebration (spoiler alert: Cinco de Mayo isn't Mexico's Independence Day, but more on that later). In reality, there's an incredible history behind the holiday and its traditions that you may not even aware of.

Cinco de Mayo is more than just an excuse to eat amazing food and drink margaritas. So if you want to learn more about the Mexican day of celebration, you've come to the right place. Read on for some fascinating historical facts about Cinco de Mayo that you've probably never heard before.

Many people believe that Cinco de Mayo marks Mexico gaining independence as a country, similar to Independence Day in the U.S. Cinco de Mayo (Spanish for May 5) celebrates the Mexican army's victory over France at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

While it does celebrate a national victory, Cinco de Mayo isn't Mexican Independence Day. The actually Mexican Independence Day is celebrated on September 16.

The Battle of Puebla was part of the Franco-Mexican War. One of the reasons it's so significant is because the French army was much larger and more prepared than the Mexican army. They had more weaponry and men at their disposal, but the French still lost the battle to Mexico (though they did eventually win the war).

He wanted to turn the Puebla area into a base that would help the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. Some historians have argued that had he succeeded, the Civil War could've had a very different outcome.

Despite winning the battle, Mexico still fell under French control for five years. Emperor Maximilian of Austria was put in charge.

The anniversary of the Battle of Puebla was declared a national holiday referred to as &ldquoBattle of Puebla Day&rdquo or &ldquoBattle of Cinco de Mayo&rdquo by President Benito Juárez on May 9, 1862. However, it's no longer considered a national holiday in Mexico.

The holiday started to be celebrated in the U.S. after President Roosevelt created the &ldquoGood Neighbor Policy&rdquo in 1933 to improve relations with Latin American countries.

In 1863, Mexican miners in the town of Columbia broke into celebration when they received news that people were resisting French occupancy back home.

With huge celebrations like Fiesta Broadway and Cinco de Mayo at Olvera Street, the California city is known for their Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

Throughout the 1960's and 1970's, Cinco de Mayo become closely associated with the Chicano rights movement in the United States.

Congress issued a resolution recognizing the historical significance of Cinco. They called upon the President (George W. Bush) to make a proclamation for the holiday to be celebrated across the nation.

Washington DC holds their own Running of the Chihuahuas, a breed native to Mexico.

Mariachi originated in Jalisco, Mexico, in the 19th century. The musicians would travel from town to town singing songs of revolutionary heroes and enemies, and carrying news from one place to another.

Baile folklórico is a traditional Mexican folk dance that dates back to Mexico's 1810 War of Independence, when the country was becoming more nationalistic. It's characterized both by the colorful clothing and mariachi music.

If you've ever been to a Cinco de Mayo parade or any other Mexican cultural celebration, you've probably seen dancers wearing gorgeous colorful dresses like this one. They're often called "puebla dresses." Today, they incorporate a variety of materials including lace, satin, and silk, but the earliest dresses were made with naturally available materials like cotton, bark, and agave plants.

Mole poblano is considered to be the official dish of the holiday because it is traditionally eaten in the town of Puebla. It's a sauce containing chili pepper, chocolate, and spices.


The Real History of Cinco de Mayo

Soldiers wearing period costumes take part in a re-enactment of the Battle of Puebla in Puebla, Mexico, in 2012. (Imelda Medina/Reuters)

T he fifth of May has been a Mexican holiday since 1862, and has gradually become a bigger one in America. Like many American holidays, it is now encrusted with humbug and commercialism. As with St. Patrick’s Day, many Americans see it solely as an excuse to drink, eat some ethnic food, and maybe wear some ridiculous plastic hats. You may know some of the common myth-busting tropes: It isn’t Mexican independence day, it’s arguably a bigger holiday here today than it is back home in Mexico, and it only celebrates beating the French for control of a town the French won back a year later anyway.

Here’s the thing, though: The Mexican victory at the Battle of the Puebla on May 5, 1862, really was a big deal that deserves to be remembered. It’s one of a handful of days that decided the fate of the North American continent. Yet, it is also a tragic story, as are so many episodes in the modern histories of Mexico and France.

Our Southern Neighbor
Mexico, like most of the nations south of the United States, was a child of the Napoleonic Wars. The greatest victim of those wars was Spain, a traditional Catholic monarchy ruling over an agrarian economy that depended heavily on cotton exports and the mineral wealth of its vast colonial empire, second in size only to the British empire in 1792. Before independence, Mexico produced 80 percent of the world’s silver and gold the disruption of the supply of Mexican silver would badly destabilize the silver-based economy of China in the 1820s and 1830s. The British blockades of the Napoleonic era wrecked Spain’s cotton exports, which were supplanted by the American South and its cotton gin after 1793. The Spanish navy was destroyed at Trafalgar, the country laid waste by guerilla war from 1808 to 1813. Protracted economic separation from the mother country drove the colonies to rebel against Spain and enter the trading orbit of Britain.

Mexico’s national governments were unstable from the outset of independence in 1821. The country was strained by the two great dividing lines of the mid 19th century: federalists against nationalists, and liberals against conservatives. The federal–state power struggle was, if anything, more acute in Mexico than in the United States, except that Mexican nationalists rarely faced united regional blocs of states after the fashion of the American South. When Texas rebelled, it did so at the same time as multiple other Mexican states, some as far south as the Yucatán, but their coordination was limited, and only the Texans won their fight for independence.

Mexican classical liberals (whose ideology would today be considered conservative) opposed throne-and-altar conservatism with demands for written constitutions, democratic and republican government, equality before the law, religious, civil, and economic liberty, and an end to established churches. The two sides’ ideas did not exist in isolation but mirrored the liberal–conservative divides in Spain and France as well as the liberalizing influence of America. The liberals also sought to improve the legal status of Indians (Mexicans of Native American descent), who made up around 80 percent of the country and were, in some places, held in a state of peonage (debt-enforced forced labor) only a step above slavery. Peonage was one of the underlying factors in the Caste War, which erupted among the Mayans in the Yucatán in 1847, creating a separate enclave by the early 1850s that would not be restored to Mexican sovereignty until 1901.

Benito Juárez and the Liberal Dream
Mexican vulnerability naturally attracted opportunistic foreign governments, but geography gave the United States the edge, reflected in the 1846–47 Mexican War, which stripped away a third of Mexico’s territory. The Monroe Doctrine, which at the time was enforced as much by the British Royal Navy as by the U.S., kept the European continental powers away as well.

Mexican national pride balked at any hint of further losses of territory or sovereignty. Antonio López de Santa Anna, who embodied the shifting sands of Mexican politics for two decades and frequently switched sides among the various factions, fell from power for good in 1855 after a backlash against the Gadsden Purchase, his sale of Mexican border land to the United States — the last time, as it turned out, that the continental borders of either nation would change. With Santa Anna deposed, a liberal constitution was established by the victors in 1857, with Ignacio Comonfort as president and Benito Juárez as chief justice. The constitution made the chief justice next in line to serve as president.

Juárez, a slight, dark man easily recognized in Mexico as an Indian, was a devoted classical liberal cut from much the same cloth as Abraham Lincoln. Like Lincoln, he was an unassuming man proud of his humble origins, a frock-coated lawyer who never aspired to be a general or an aristocrat. Before the 1855 revolution, he had been in exile in New Orleans, then a hotbed of expatriates out of favor in their homelands. Cholera almost killed Juárez in New Orleans, but he was made of stern stuff, and nothing short of the grave deterred him.

The liberal constitution was overthrown by a conservative military–clerical coup almost as soon as it went in effect. Comonfort collaborated with the coup but was overthrown himself within weeks. His last act in office, once he saw the writing on the wall, was to let Juárez out of jail. Juárez declared himself the constitutional president upon Comonfort’s departure and spent the next three years locked in the Reform War against the conservatives, led ultimately by Miguel Miramón.

Rescued from a siege in the coastal city of Veracruz in 1859 by yellow fever among Miramón’s men, Juárez turned in desperation to a deal with the Americans, the McLane–Ocampo Treaty, which promised U.S. military and financial assistance in exchange for the sale of the Baja California peninsula to the U.S. and a railway concession in southern Mexico. The treaty eventually died in the U.S. Senate amidst the sectional fractures of 1860, but Mexican conservatives did not forgive it, and ultimately kidnapped and murdered Melchor Ocampo, Juárez’s foreign minister, in 1861. Meanwhile, Juárez turned to General Jesús González Ortega and his second-in-command, Porfirio Díaz, who turned the tables and crushed Miramón, taking Mexico City on Christmas Day, 1860. At long last, Juárez — now elected president in his own right — could bring constitutional government to Mexico.

Unpaid Bills and a Distracted North
The U.S. Senate may have let Juárez off the hook for the commitments he made during the Reform War, but European creditors would not so easily relinquish debts that Miramón had rung up fighting him, which they insisted were enforceable against his enemies. The British were willing to cut a deal, but the Spanish and French were not. Spain had only been stopped by the U.S. Navy from intervening on the side of Miramón’s siege of Veracruz, and French investors were tied closely to the half-brother of Napoleon III. The Mexican congress scuttled Juárez’s effort at a negotiated solution by passing a ban in July 1861 on repayment of Miramón’s debts. Juárez, unwilling to expose himself to the fate of Ocampo and Santa Anna, reluctantly signed the bill.

The timing was fateful: News of the debt repudiation reached Europe at the same time as news of the First Battle of Bull Run, which had ended in an inconclusive Confederate victory that promised a longer American Civil War. Napoleon III, an inveterate schemer who was simultaneously engaged in a joint Franco–Spanish war in Vietnam and a peacekeeping mission in Syria, approached Spanish general Juan Prim about a joint expedition to Mexico. Two years earlier, Napoleon had told Mexican conservatives that he dared not involve himself in Mexico for fear of a war with the United States. Only the promise that America would be too engaged in its own war to stop him made the invasion of Mexico possible.

Napoleon’s plan now added a twist: He would try to cement ties with Franz Joseph of Austria, whom he had defeated in a war in Italy two years earlier, by making Franz Joseph’s brother Maximilian the emperor of Mexico. Franz Joseph, who never trusted Napoleon, thought this was a terrible idea, but he needed to appease France and would not stand in his brother’s way. Lord Palmerston, the British prime minister, also hated the idea, but was wedded to the principle of gunboat enforcement of British rights. William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, tried to forestall an invasion by promising that the U.S. would repay the Europeans and take a mortgage on Mexican mineral rights, but Palmerston (who despised Seward because they were too much alike) hated that plan even more, as it would strengthen the American hold on northern Mexico.

The European landing at Veracruz in December 1861 would fairly swiftly become a solely French venture, as its goal became imposing a conservative European emperor. Prim, who had family connections in Mexico, saw at once that this would be an unpopular and protracted campaign, and fell back to Havana — a wise move that would aid Prim’s ascent to lead Spain later in the decade. The British refused to let their 700 Royal Marines venture far from their ships for fear of yellow fever. Both abandoned Mexico in the spring of 1862.

The British presence, however, had unforeseen consequences. When the U.S. and Britain nearly came to war in November and December of 1861, the British had to rush troops across the Atlantic to defend Canada. Unfortunately, the Admiralty found that it had sent all its available troop ships to Veracruz, and it had to rent mail steamers. Because the St. Lawrence River was frozen, the advance party of British officers was packed onto a mail ship in civilian clothing with unmarked baggage and sent to Boston, where they traveled by American trains to Canada to prepare to fight a war against America.

The Stand at Puebla
Mexican geography offers few choices for the invader by sea: armies must land in low-lying Veracruz, as Winfield Scott did in 1847, and move due west up a series of plateaus to reach the elevated center of the country and Mexico City. Staying put in Veracruz in the mid-1800s meant exposure to yellow fever, which would typically kill 20 percent of any European expedition in a single season. The French, with some 7,300 men under General Charles de Lorencez, struck an agreement with Juárez: France would recognize the Juárez government and negotiate the debt in exchange for letting the French army encamp at Orizaba, at the entry to the first plateau above the yellow-fever zone. If negotiations broke down, Lorencez was on his honor to withdraw from the plateau.

Meanwhile, disaster struck Juárez’s army. In February 1862, women cooking for their husbands in the camps accidentally set off sparks that detonated a barn full of gunpowder. The resulting explosion killed 1,500 people, destroying in one stroke 10 percent of the army. The French sent doctors to help treat the wounded. When further negotiations broke down and hostilities were imminent, Ignacio Zaragoza, the Mexican general, reciprocated the favor by allowing Lorencez to leave sick soldiers in Orizaba. But miscommunications over Zaragoza’s gesture led Lorencez to fear that his wounded men would be massacred, and he abrogated the agreement and held his upland position, compelling Zaragoza to withdraw at an unexpected disadvantage.

The city of Puebla, with 80,000 inhabitants, was then the second largest city in Mexico. Mexican conservatives told Lorencez that his army would be greeted with flowers and welcomed as liberators. Puebla stood at a river crossing on the line of march from Orizaba to Mexico City, the first major crossroads after ascending to the central plateau. The French forced the passes up to the plateau, overpowering Zaragoza’s 4,000 defenders. Lorencez arrived north of the city on May 4, 1862, three days after the 15th anniversary of Puebla’s surrender to Winfield Scott.

Puebla was surrounded by a chain of five forts, two of them (Forts Loreto and Guadalupe) on the north side. Lorencez’s local allies warned him that the city had never been taken from the north, but they offered conflicting views of whether he should attack from the east or west instead. On the morning of May 5, Lorencez ignored their advice and moved into the teeth of the northern forts. Even with losses from disease and the initial skirmishes, he had a numerical advantage of approximately 6,500 men against Zaragoza’s 4,500 defenders.

French soldiers, in 1862, were still widely regarded as the best in the world. They had led the vanguard of successful frontal assaults on fortified positions from Sevastopol in 1855 to Saigon in 1861. Alone or with allies, they had blasted through the walls of Rome in 1849, whipped the Austrian army in Italy in 1859, and forced their way upriver to Beijing in 1860. On this day, the daring French advance guard even reached the top of the walls and hoisted the imperial eagle of the French flag. But the forts were too strong. French barrages could not put out their guns, and French soldiers lay heaped in front of Fort Guadalupe. Porfirio Díaz led a cavalry charge to dislodge the attackers. France sustained 462 casualties, to only 83 Mexicans.

Come nightfall, the Mexican defenders sang the Marseillaise, the revolutionary anthem that Napoleon III had banned in France. Juárez had commissioned a Mexican national anthem, but it was new and nobody knew it, so they reached for the song of anti-royalists everywhere. Juárez, recognizing the propaganda value of a victory over the French, immediately proclaimed Cinco de Mayo a national holiday, and for good measure, renamed Puebla for Zaragoza (the change didn’t stick, and Zaragoza died of typhus four months after the battle).

Lorencez braced for a counterattack, but Zaragoza knew his men could not stand with the French in the open field. In fact, a small French detachment routed a much larger Mexican force two weeks later, during the French withdrawal.

Aftermath
Puebla was not a big battle for its time. The Battle of Shiloh, fought a month earlier, featured ten times as many soldiers and 50 times as many casualties. But it changed the entire tempo of the war. Had the Mexican army been driven out, Lorencez would have established a permanent foothold on the central plateau and would likely have marched swiftly on Mexico City. Instead, recognizing that he could not remain encamped around Puebla, Lorencez retreated downhill to Orizaba. Napoleon, regretting what now looked like a premature effort to force the issue, would not authorize a renewed offensive until reinforcements had been dispatched to Veracruz, and Lorencez replaced. By the time Puebla (now defended by Comonfort) was retaken on May 17, 1863, and Mexico City captured less than a month later, a crucial year had elapsed.

It was a year Napoleon could not afford. The Confederacy reached its high tide in mid 1862, but by the time Puebla was recaptured, Stonewall Jackson was dead and Vicksburg was surrounded. Europe teetered on war over Poland for much of 1863. By the time Maximilian was finally installed in May 1864, Napoleon’s ability to sustain an open-ended troop commitment was already wearing thin, his army overextended. Prussia and Austria went to war against Denmark in early 1864, and the hour of the long-awaited reckoning on the Rhine was in view. Napoleon notified Maximilian of his intention to withdraw in January 1866, a decision that grew more urgent when Prussia turned and crushed Austria that May. The last French soldiers left Mexico in February 1867. A little over three years later, Napoleon’s unprepared and undermanned army would be routed by Prussia, toppling him from power. Had Napoleon devoted fewer resources to Mexico and more to upgrading his army in Europe, the whole history of France and Germany might have been different.

Juárez, once besieged on the Gulf coast, was driven into the far northwest of Mexico. In extremis, even his constitutional principles were bent by his efforts to remain in power and preserve what little remained of the Mexican republic. But he never gave up, and the tide turned in his favor. American pressure was a major part of that: As the Civil War wound down, Seward played on Napoleon’s fear of a clash with the battle-hardened U.S. Army. Even Confederate leaders tried to talk Lincoln, in February 1865, into suspending hostilities for a joint march against Mexico. Grant sent 50,000 men to the Mexican border as soon as the war ended, hastening Napoleon’s decision to evacuate.

Maximilian went to a firing squad in June 1867. No European monarch was ever again a serious threat to reign in the Western Hemisphere. Together with the end of American threats to Canada after its 1867 unification, the 1867 purchase of Alaska, and the 1871 settlement of Civil War–era claims between the U.S. and Britain, the borders of North America were finalized as they are today.

Mexico survived the French occupation as an independent nation, thanks in good part to the defenders at Puebla and the doggedness of Benito Juárez. But Juárez’s dream of a liberal, constitutional Mexican republic did not. The war with the French did more damage to Mexico’s institutions and its economy than had even the loss of its sparsely settled and barely governed northern provinces in 1847. By the time Juárez died in 1872, a decade of industrial progress had been missed. Porfirio Díaz, who after Zaragoza’s death would be the main surviving hero of Puebla, would serve as Mexico’s president for most of the years from 1876 to 1911. Diaz brought belated economic development, but at the cost of a conservative strongman style of government far removed from Juárez.

So raise a toast to Cinco de Mayo, a day that changed the course of history, and to the Mexico that might have been, and maybe someday will be.


Beating Back an Empire

After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, other nations were reluctant to recognize the autonomy of the fledgling country. In the ensuing decades, Mexico lost a large portion of its land to the U.S. and entered into a period of economic and political instability.

This was punctuated by a civil war in the late 1850s that resulted in Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president, taking power in 1861.

One of Juárez’s first acts was canceling repayments on foreign loans in an attempt to protect Mexico’s struggling economy. This angered Britain, Spain, and France, and prompted them to send a joint expeditionary force to Mexico. However, Britain and Spain quickly withdrew as it became clear that French ruler Napoleon III was more interested in overthrowing the new Mexican government.

The Battle of Puebla took place on May 5, 1862, when the Mexican army, led by Commander General Ignacio Zaragoza, repelled attacks by the French army on the city of Puebla, located about 70 miles southeast of Mexico City.

It was a small but inspirational victory for Mexico, and four days later, on May 9, 1862, Juárez declared Cinco de Mayo a national holiday.

Even though the French would eventually defeat the Mexican Army and take control of the country under the short-lived Second Mexican Empire, which lasted from 1864 to 1867, the victory in the Battle of Puebla sent a powerful message to the rest of the world.

The Mexican Army was outnumbered two to one by seasoned French troops, so Mexico proved itself to be a formidable opponent worthy of international respect. And the fact that the country was led by an indigenous president held a special symbolic significance.


Cinco de Mayo History: From Bloodshed to Beer Fest

The history of Cinco de Mayo: from Mexican battle to U.S. bacchanal.

Today fiesta lovers across the United States will gather to celebrate the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo—literally "May 5" in Spanish. And some U.S. partygoers may be surprised to learn that Cinco de Mayo history is short on beer, long on bloodshed.

Cinco de Mayo is often mistaken for Mexican Independence Day, which is actually September 16. On that date in 1810, Mexico declared its independence from Spanish rule. (Related blog post: Cinco de Mayo in any language.)

Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates the Mexican army's unlikely defeat of French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Yet Cinco de Mayo is celebrated only sporadically in Mexico, mainly in the southern town of Puebla (see map of Puebla) and a few larger cities.

In recent years, though, Cinco de Mayo rapidly gained popularity in the U.S., where changing demographics have helped to turn the holiday into a cultural event. Latinos are the largest minority in the U.S. today with 44.3 million people, representing 15 percent of the population, according to a July 2008 U.S. Census Bureau report.

A 1998 study in the Journal of American Culture found that the number of official U.S. celebrations of Cinco de Mayo topped 120.

In 2006 the number of official Cinco de Mayo events was 150 or more, according to José Alamillo, professor of ethnic studies at Washington State University in Pullman, who has studied the cultural impact of Cinco de Mayo north of the border.

Cinco de Mayo is even celebrated in towns across the U.S. that are predominately non-Hispanic, he noted.

Cinco de Mayo, he said, is "definitely becoming more popular than St. Patrick's Day."

Cinco de Mayo History: Battle of Puebla

In 1862 a Mexican militia led by General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated far better equipped French expeditionary forces on Cinco de Mayo.

Emperor Napoleon III had sent French troops to Mexico to secure dominance over the former Spanish colony and install one of his relatives, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, as its ruler.

Zaragoza won the battle, but the Mexicans ultimately lost the war. Maximilian became Mexico's emperor for three years before the country reclaimed its independence.

Cinco de Mayo: From Brotherly Love to Chicano Power

Cinco de Mayo gained its first popularity in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, partly because of an outpouring of brotherly love, Alamillo says.

"The reason it became more popular [in the U.S. during that time] was in part because of the Good Neighbor policy," he said, referring to a U.S. government effort at the time to reach out to neighboring countries.

"Cinco de Mayo's purpose was to function as a bridge between these two cultures," Alamillo said.

The holiday's popularity really grew in the 1960s, when Mexican-American, or Chicano, activists embraced the holiday as a way to build pride among Mexican Americans, Alamillo says.

The 1862 Cinco de Mayo victory carries a strong anti-imperialist message that resonates with many Mexican Americans, experts say.

"As a community, we are tough and committed, and we believe that we can prevail," said Robert Con Davis-Undiano, a professor of Chicano studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

"That was the attitude of the ragtag Mexican troops who faced and defeated the French in Puebla," he said.

"And Mexican Americans, other Latinos, and literally everyone can feel proud and motivated by that message."

At the same time, Cinco de Mayo was transformed from a strictly nationalist celebration to a bicultural event that expressed the Mexican Americans' identity, Washington State's Alamillo says.

"It allowed for Anglo-Americans to partake in and learn about Mexican culture through Cinco de Mayo," Alamillo said. (Celebrate Cinco de Mayo with pictures of Mexico.)

"Mexican Americans by this point were interested in building this relationship, because they were asking for certain political demands and for more resources for the community.

"It became a really interesting negotiation festival in a lot of ways."

Cinco de Mayo: From Culture to Commercialism

Then came the 1980s, and the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo.

This, Alamillo says, is when the meaning of Cinco de Mayo changed from community self-determination to a drinking holiday for many people.

He says U.S. corporations, particularly those selling alcohol, were eager to tap into the expanding Hispanic population in the U.S.

"It's not just the large number of the Hispanics but also that it's a very young population that is particularly receptive to advertisers," Alamillo said.

"Cinco de Mayo became a vehicle to tap into that market."

Davis-Undiano, the University of Oklahoma professor, still sees Cinco de Mayo as a positive force that can bring Latinos and non-Latinos together, especially at a time when tensions surrounding the illegal immigration debate run high.

"I'm convinced there is a lot of unprocessed anxiety among non-Latinos concerning what changes that will come with a much larger Latino population," he said.


Companies cash in

The widespread commercialization of Cinco de Mayo occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. Beer companies, in particular, targeted Mexican Americans, exhorting them to celebrate their heritage with Coronas, Bud Lights and Dos Equis.

Commodification of Mexican and Mexican American heritage soon followed, and today’s revelers purchase piñatas, Mexican flag paraphernalia, sombreros and costumes that can veer towards the offensive.

While more and more Americans – regardless of their ethnic heritage – take part in the festivities, few know what Cinco de Mayo commemorates. One survey found that only 10% of Americans could describe the holiday’s origins.

Miami Marlins baseball fans don sombreros and hold up placards to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

The complicated legacy of Cinco de Mayo serves as a reminder that the past is made meaningful in different ways by different people.

For Mexicans – especially those living outside of the modern city of Puebla – the holiday is of minor significance, dwarfed in comparison to much more important national and religious holidays, like Mexican Independence Day and Day of the Dead. However, reenactments of the Battle of Puebla still take place in modern Puebla as well as in Mexico City’s Peñon de los Baños neighborhood.

For many Mexican Americans, the day holds a special significance as an opportunity to celebrate their shared heritage. But given the creeping commercialization of the holiday, some Mexican Americans have expressed ambivalence about celebrating it.

And for Americans without Mexican ancestry, the holiday seems to simply serve as an excuse to drink margaritas.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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