Ten years ago. It was Cinco de Mayo, and I found myself at the Del Taco drive-through ordering a burrito (which really isn’t a thing in Mexico, btw). On a whim, I asked the kid at the window if she knew what Cinco de Mayo celebrates, and she didn’t have a clue.
I filled up at the gas station next door, and asked the attendant, who had a distinctly Latin American accent if he could tell me what Cinco de Mayo was recognized for. Turned out he wasn’t Mexican at all (he was Guatemalan), and he didn’t know either, but thought it was the day Mexico celebrated its independence from Spain.
Pero no. Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16th. Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates a much smaller, sort of obscure (but also important) moment in Mexico’s history. But just like the U.S. has taken St. Patrick’s Day and morphed it into a wild day of binging on green beer and corned beef (and pinching), we’ve also taken a holiday that Mexico traditionally celebrates with a somber military parade and have turned it into a wild day of binging on tequila and Mexican food.
I don’t want to rain on anybody’s margarita parade, I just think that it’s good to know the reason behind your Saturday morning hangover. Because while everyone in the United States is gung ho to hoist a Corona and dance to a mariachi band on the fifth of May, how many people really understand what its all about? Well amigos, I’m gonna tell you. So crack open a Dos Equis, and get ready for a little history lesson.
Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexico’s victory in one singular battle with the French.
Oui, the French. Or to point the finger more directly, Napoleon III. This guy was the nephew of the original playground bully, Napoleon I, who was exiled to a remote island after invading, conquering, or going to war with Italy, Egypt, Russia, Austria, England, Prussia, Spain and Portugal (and I probably forgot a few) during his maniacal military career. But fifty years later, his nephew was in charge of things, and decided to follow in his uncle’s footsteps by taking Mexico.
Mexico had already asserted itself and separated from Spain (which happened in 1810). But there were still some hard feelings there. Which is why, more than fifty years later, Spain at first jumped on board when Napoleon III decided to stage what he called an ‘intervention’ (as if Mexico had a tequila problem the French wanted to help with). And so did England.
Why? Well the claim was that Benito Juarez, the newly elected president of Mexico, decided to undo some of the things that had been enacted during the previous conservative government’s administration. If you like to draw similarities, it was kind of like how the new conservative led U.S. government is recalling the Affordable Healthcare Act of the last administration. Part of Juarez’s plan included halting interest payments to Mexico’s foreign debtors: France, England and Spain.
This was Napoleon’s moment, and he seized it. He convinced Spain and England to join him in pressuring Mexico to resume payments, but most of the history books (and Wikipedia) will tell you that Napoleon was really planning to conquer Mexico all along, to get his hands on more territory and the country’s rich silver resources. Napoleon sent ships. So did Spain, but when they arrived at Veracruz in March of 1862, and realized what Napoleon’s plans really entailed, they broke off their little affair and went home. England followed suit, leaving France to invade Mexico on its own.
And here’s the thing: they won the war. For a time (it was a short time), Juarez’s government was ousted, and Emperor Maximilian was crowned. But within a few years Juarez was able to gain control again, Maximilian was executed, and the French went back to France.
But there was one battle in that war that Mexico won. It was on the fifth of May, in the colonial city of Puebla. The French had twice as many soldiers (8,000), but they seriously underestimated the passion and strategy of the 4,000 Mexicans. Long story short: David conquered Goliath. More than 450 French soldiers died in battle; only 83 Mexicans perished. The French withdrew, licked their wounds, and went on to other battles. By the way, the French came back and fought another battle in Puebla a year later, and this time they won.
Cinco de Mayo is widely celebrated in the state of Puebla to commemorate the grit and proud machismo of its people, as well as their willingness to stand up and fight against bigger forces. But since Mexico didn’t actually win this war, the whole country doesn’t mark this day with celebrations. Its normally recognized with a military parade and a re-enactment of the battle on a hillside near Mexico City.
How does the United States factor into Cinco de Mayo? It totally doesn’t. We didn’t have any part in this whole escapade. We had a pretty good excuse: Our hands full at the time with a little skirmish we called the Civil War. But once our war with ourselves was over, we stepped in to protect our ally to the south, and threatened Napoleon III with a new war if he didn’t pull out his troops and go home. So he did, and eventually President Juarez was returned to power in 1867.
So I suppose we did have a part in helping Mexico establish its sovereignty once again as kind of a big brother, which kind of justifies our happy celebration of all the fun aspects of Mexican heritage on Cinco De Mayo. As long as you sweep under the rug the fact that our nation’s current president is now endeavoring to build a wall between our two countries. Sigh.
There are many other wonderful aspects of Mexican culture besides pinatas, tequila and tortilla chips. Mexico’s music scene has really been blossoming in the past decade, producing some very catchy, incredible music that I have just been waiting for an excuse to share with usted. Taste some of this muy sabrosa musica for yourself by pressing the play button below and checking out today’s Viva Mexico playlist. If you’re hip to the Mexican music scene and have some favorites of your own to add to the list, lemme know!