U.S Postal Stamp
Painting of the Battle of Puebla
Mural by Antonio Gonzalez Orozco
depicting the arrival of Juarez and his
cabinet in Mexico City in 1867.
Its Cinco de Mayo. Here's a little history for you from Las Culturas....
Cinco de Mayo may be the most well known celebration by Latinos in the United States. It is, however, one of the most misunderstood celebrations. Is it Mexican Independence Day? Why does it seem to be celebrated by Latinos in the United States more than Mexico? Is it appropriate to celebrate a Mexican holiday in the United States? Is it a holiday just for Mexican Americans or for all Latinos in the United States?
And why is this holiday important for all Americans?
It is not Mexican Independence Day. This is a common myth, possibly made popular because the celebration centers on a battle and you can see the Mexican flag at many celebrations. The actual independence celebration is referred to as el Grito de Dolores and takes place on Diez y Seis de Septiembre (Sept. 16th).
The US and Mexico
In part due to the Mexican-American War, Mexico was still suffering the effects of a demoralized nation and an empty treasury. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln of the United States and President Benito Juarez (a full-blooded Zapotec Indian) of Mexico both had their hands full with war. While the US Civil War was waging, Emperor Napoleon III set his army on the shores of Mexico with the added support of Spain and Britain. They had arrived to collect their debts from Mexico. This was in direct defiance of the Monroe Doctrine, which warned Europe to stay out of the affairs in our hemisphere. The army, undefeated for 50 years in Europe and Asia, started marching north to capture Mexico and eventually create a French empire that would extend to Central and South America.
Both Presidents knew it was in their interest to defeat the French and expel them from Mexico.
La Batalla de Puebla
General Ignacio Zaragosa is a key figure in the battle at Puebla, known for his guerilla tactics. He was born in Bahia del Espiritu Santo, Tejas, before Texas was part of the United States. Today the town is called Goliad. General Zaragosa was tasked with stopping an experienced force that outnumbered his poorly trained and poorly equipped recruits by the thousands.
On May 5, when the French approached Puebla, General Zaragosa and the townsfolk of Puebla defeated them soundly. The French retreated with several hundred of their troops lost in battle.
President Juarez responded by making the victory a national celebration. The little town of Puebla had defeated the strongest army in the world and would inspire all of the local armies in Mexico.
The French were also impressed. They responded by sending a force of 30,000 to finish the fight. After a year of preparation, the French defeated Puebla and started towards Mexico City. Once President Juarez was in exile and Mexico City had fallen to French control, Maximilian of Habsburg was named Emperor of Mexico. In many ways he was a benevolent ruler, but one of his decrees was that any followers of Juarez would be put to death within 24 hours of capture. President Juarez would continue to wage battle and govern his loyal followers in exile.
With the United States at peace again, European forces and support began to withdraw from the effort in Mexico. US soldiers were discharged if they decided to support the Mexican army. In 1867, Maximilian was executed for his role in a conflict that cost 50,000 Mexican lives.
A US Latino Holiday - Dignity, Justice, Destiny
Many believe that this celebration should be just a Mexican holiday, or just a Mexican-American holiday. It may be celebrated more in the US than it is in Mexican towns. Puebla, of course, continues to make this a local celebration. The destiny of the United States is linked to the tenacity and courage that the victory at Puebla invoked in the hidden armies of Mexico. The French diplomatic campaign to minimize the Spanish and Portuguese dominance in the Americas is why the region is referred to "Latin" America today.
If the French had retained power in Mexico, they would have spread south and eventually made a challenge to the United States. If Puebla had not delayed the advance of the French, Lincoln would have found a French army at the border of a divided United States. A force ready to finance and arm the Confederacy. Instead, the United States would reunite and become the most powerful army in the world. Mexico, to celebrate the success and cooperation of the two nations, has the only standing statue of Abraham Lincoln outside of the United States. Just as US soldiers crossed to support Mexico, Mexicans, as recent as the Persian Gulf War, have offered to cross national lines and fight for the United States. Latinos continue to be the most awarded ethnic group in heroic service to our military.
One of the key components that lit the fire for Cinco de Mayo and made it popular in the United States was the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, which reached its climax 100 years after the Battle at Puebla. Mexican-Americans, as the most populous Hispanic group in the United States, led the struggle to end lynching, land theft, segregation, illegal deportations and a host of human rights violations in the United States that affected all Hispanics. During this struggle, the memory of Puebla continued to inspire strength and the determination to control our destiny with dignity.
On Cinco de Mayo, ignore the Budweiser commercials and other commercialization. Find a community celebration and remember the simple folk in Mexico that affected the destiny of both nations. And remember the spirit of the men and women, Chicanos and other Latinos, who brought down the walls of segregation and abuse, returned dignity to the United States and Latinos by ending the persecution, and continue to do so today.