Cinco de Mayo – Beyond Margaritas

Cinco de Mayo de 1862 – The date is May fifth, 1862.

The outnumbered Mexican army defeats the French advances on the City of Puebla, in a heroic battle to the likes of David vs Goliath

Historical Context in the Early to Mid 1800s

Southern US –  After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the territory of Coahuila y Tejas was recognized as a Mexican state under the Mexican Constitution of 1824.  Mexico also owned other extensive territories in the area, the present-day U.S. states of California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as part of Arizona, about half of New Mexico, one quarter of Colorado, and a small section of Wyoming.  After the Texas war in 1835-36, a chunk of Coahuila y Tejas and the other half of New Mexico declared their independence from Mexico as the Republic of Texas.  Some American groups in the South (later the Confederates) supported the move, and promoted the Mexican-American war of 1846-48, which gained the afford mentioned extensive territories for the US (known as the Mexican Cession); shortly after, the Republic of Texas joined the US.  In 1861, the American Civil War placed the young Southern states and territories under Confederate power or threat, and the anti-slavery and Hispanic local populations found themselves in a very vulnerable position.

France – Napoleon III (Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew) was president of France from 1848 to 1852, becoming the head of the Second French Empire in 1852.  As emperor, he wanted to make France a great power once again, planning new ways for commerce and furthering French products abroad; his policies favoured extending colonialism based on commercial interests and the establishment of new bases.  By 1860, his regime was stable and he had extended his influence in Europe, so in 1861, he took the opportunity to send military forces to Mexico over a debt dispute, thinking that establishing a Mexican Empire under French rule, would give France commercial prosperity in the Americas, as well as a strategic position to influence the American Civil War.  Napoleon III planned to aid the Confederates to win the war, and gain an ally in the US, which had become a growing influence in Latin America.

Mexico – In 1861, the Mexican Reform War (1858-1861) had just ended, debt to foreign powers, including France, was enormous, and the newly elected Liberal president Benito Juárez was facing tough negotiations with them, as well as great opposition from Mexican conservative groups, some of which were quick to support France’s advances into the country.

Battle of Puebla – May 5, 1862

Between December 1861 and January 1862, the Spanish, British and French governments had form a tripartite alliance to demand debt payment from the Juárez government,  and had landed troops in the Mexican port of Veracruz; the Alliance fell apart by early April 1862, when it became clear the French wanted to impose harsh demands on Mexico to provoke a war.  Napoleon III wanted to take Mexico City and set up a government under his power.  The British and Spanish armies left, but the French marched towards the City of Puebla.  General Ignacio Zaragoza, the young commander of the Mexican army, had  retreated to Puebla from Acultzingo.  The city was heavily fortified, with the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe on opposite hilltops to the North.  The French army entered the battlefield from there, finding themselves surrounded by Mexican troops on either side; in a matter of hours, over 400 French soldiers had been killed, and they were forced to retreat.

Consequences of this Victorious Outcome

Southern US – Mexican historians (such as Justo Sierra, in his “Evolución Política del Pueblo Mexicano”) and American sources (such as the Loyal Legion Historical Journal) agree that if this battle had been lost, the French forces would have occupied Mexico City shortly after, then being in a strategic and advantageous position to aid the confederate artillery with French weapons and ammunition; this would have possibly ” … set the stage for the victory needed by the Confederate States of America to gain diplomatic recognition by the European Powers and the military support that this implied.” [1]  The defeat brought hope to the pro-Union Hispanic communities, especially in California.  By the time the French had regrouped, eventually taking Mexico a year later, the American Union had built a strong army that defeated the Confederates at Gettysburg, just 14 months after the battle of Puebla.

France –  The French forces retreated and regrouped, and they were eventually victorious in the same battlefield, in the Second Battle of Puebla on 17 May 1863; as predicted, they shortly took Mexico City.  When the capital fell, Juárez’s government was forced into exile in the remote Northern town of Paso del Norte, and later, in the city of Chihuahua.  With the backing of France, the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian became Emperor of Mexico from 1864 to 1867.

Mexico –  The Battle of Puebla was an inspirational event for Mexico, after its own Reform war and previous defeats against the French; it provided recognition from the rest of the world, which expected a quick victory for France.  Even though Mexico was under French rule for three years, Mexicans were not disheartened and kept fighting the occupation, and Juárez was able to mostly preserve his government and fight the Empire from the North.

Commemoration and Celebration

Southern US – From The Schiller Institute’s ‘This Week in History May 4-10’ [1]: “At the end of the U.S. Civil War, General Phil Sheridan took 100,000 Union soldiers [to] the Mexican border as a show of force against Maximilian and France, and the U.S. also provided modern weapons and military equipment, including medical equipment. In recognition of Juarez’s role, he was made an honorary member of the Loyal Legion.”  It is also well documented that the first Cinco de Mayo celebrations were held in California and other southwestern states, starting in 1862, among pro-Union Hispanics [2].  After the Civil War, veterans of both the Mexican and Union armies joined in the celebrations.

France –  Napoleon III was plagued by health issues and conflict with Prussia, now lacking support from Great Britain.  Once the American Civil War was over, all hope for control over the Americas was gone, and he abandoned Maximilian; Juárez and the liberal Mexican forces finally regained control of the government in 1867.

Mexico –  Juárez and his allies recognized the importance of the victory in Puebla as a boost to the morale of the Mexican troops; just a few days after the battle, he declared Cinco de Mayo a holiday.  General Ignacio Zaragoza was born in 1829 in a small town in the then Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas, today Goliad, Texas.  After Texas became independent, the rest of the territory was divided, and one section was renamed in his honour as the Mexican state of Coahuila de Zaragoza.  Sadly, General Zaragoza fell ill and died in September of 1862; the city of Puebla was re-named Puebla de Zaragoza, also in his honour.  Special celebrations and parades take place in Texas, Coahuila and Puebla every year.  Also relevant, a young brigadier named Porfirio Díaz, was instrumental in the victory of Cinco de Mayo in 1862; he refused offers for commanding positions from the conservatives and Maximilian himself in several occasions; and on April 2, 1867, he won the final battle against the Empire, once again in Puebla.  Many years later, Díaz was elected president, position that he held for over three decades, into the 20th Century; during that time, he promoted the celebration of his military victories, and of Cinco de Mayo.

And finally, everything seems to have come around in full circle with Cinco de Mayo.  In 1868, Paso del Norte was re-named Ciudad Juárez, to commemorate the president’s stay in this humble place; curiously, in the summer of 1942, a bartender named Pancho Morales, while working at “Tommy’s Place” on Juárez Avenue (now a curio shop), invented the quintessential Cinco de Mayo cocktail: The Classic Margarita [3].