BY VINCENT SPADA
Cinco de Mayo (Fifth of May) is a great celebration of Mexican culture, history, food and heritage. But have you ever wondered what it’s all about and why it’s held on May 5th? Well, let’s take a closer look and see if we can iron out some of the lesser-known details.
In the late 1850s, Mexico experienced a civil conflict known as the Reform War, fought between Liberals who favored freedom of religion and separation of church and state (sound familiar?) and Conservatives who hoped for a close tie to the Catholic Church. In December of 1860, this struggle (also known as the Three Years’ War) ended in a Liberal victory. However, by 1861 the Mexican Treasury was virtually bankrupt due to the fighting and thus couldn’t pay its foreign debt (owed mostly to Britain, France and Spain). Thus, President Benito Juarez declared that payment of all such debt would be suspended for a period of two years. This declaration provoked the European powers to send naval forces to demand reimbursement. Spain and Britain negotiated and ultimately withdrew but an agreement could not be reached with France. Thus, in late 1861 a French fleet attacked the city of Veracruz, landing a major force bent on the invasion of the country.
This military act compelled President Juarez and his government to retreat to safer locations. The French army continued their advance toward the capital, Mexico City, meeting significant resistance at the forts of Guadalupe and Loreto. Finally, on May 5th, 1862, near the city of Puebla, a force of 8,000 French troops met an army of 4,000 Mexicans. The French were led by General Charles de Lorencez, while the Mexicans were captained by General Ignacio Zaragoza. The initial assault, beginning around noon, was repulsed by heavy Mexican fire from both forts and the second assault, while more successful, also met with eventual failure. The third and final charge, made without artillery support, was driven back by heroic resistance from the Mexican line. As the rain began to fall, French forces finally retreated, and by 7 o’clock that evening the battle was over.
These actions were all part of the larger design of French emperor Napoleon III to turn Mexico into a puppet state of France. This was successful for a few years, but the foreign regime was ultimately overthrown for good in 1867. Hence, Mexico maintained its independence, and the Fifth of May has remained a date of celebration and remembrance in the country ever since. It was also recognized in America as early as 1863, especially among the Mexican community situated in California. Therefore, this year, when you purchase chips and salsa for your Cinco de Mayo party, don’t forget that it is bravery, not beer, which makes this holiday so very special…
So have a Happy Fifth of May. Sing and dance as you always should. Mexico Para Siempre!