Did you know that the first Cinco de Mayo celebration was not in Mexico, but in California in 1863? To this day, the date is still more celebrated in the US than in Mexico. While that probably has more to do with tequila and beer corporations marketing the holiday, there is a good reason for (North) Americans to remember Cinco de Mayo. Contrary to popular belief, May 5th is not Mexico’s Independence Day. It actually commemorates one of the most important battles in the US Civil War and played a part in Lincoln being able to preserve the Union.
After a series of exhausting and expensive wars from 1846 to 1860 (including the Mexican-American War), Mexico was bankrupt. Mexican President Juarez issued a memorandum that all debt payments would have to be suspended for two years. That was enough for the English, Spanish and the French to load their respective armies on their ships to come looking for payment. While the English and Spanish worked out an agreement with Mexico and turned back, Napoleon III (Napoleon I’s nephew) saw an opportunity to make a land grab and establish “The Second Mexican Empire.”
The French ships landed in Veracruz in 1861 and 8,000 heavily armed French soldiers began their march toward Mexico City…. At the time, France had one of the best trained armies in the world. They had been undefeated for fifty years, since Waterloo. However, on their way to the capital city, they ran into General Ignacio Zaragoza and the 4,000 men he had recruited, many of whom were local farmers armed with nothing more than machetes. When the dust settled in the foothills of Puebla, the elite French army was in full retreat.
Word of the shocking upset spread throughout the countryside and to the entire world. Relishing their miraculous victory, beleaguered Mexicans were instilled with a renewed sense of national unity and pride. Unfortunately, the victory was mostly symbolic. While the French did suffer a major setback, their superior firepower eventually won out. It took over a year and 30,000 troops, but France took control of Mexico City and installed “Maximilian I” as the new (French approved) emperor of Mexico.
So how did “Cinco de Mayo” help to preserve the Union? In 1862, the Civil War was also raging in the United States. Many believe Napoleon III’s endgame was to break up the Union by providing arms and money to the Confederate Army. In fact, if France had taken the region of central/Northern Mexico of Puebla, they would have been in position to begin supporting the Confederacy at a critical time in the Civil War. When the Mexicans defeated the French on May 5th, it bought the Union Army fourteen more months to get to Gettysburg and end the war before the French could weigh in.
Once the Civil War was finally over, a grateful Abraham Lincoln was able to provide guns and ammunition to Mexico’s rebels who were fighting to take their country back. Two years later, the French were expelled by the Mexican army and Maximilian I was executed on orders of President Juarez. The US and Mexico have never been invaded by a European power since.
So, what are the lessons we can learn from Cinco de Mayo?
1. Empire building is usually not very good foreign policy. Invading countries half way around the world and expecting them to remain in submission rarely works out. Napoleon learned that the hard way, as have many Emperors and Presidents throughout history… even recent history.
2. While we’ve had our differences, Mexico and the US have had a longstanding, mutually beneficial relationship. Maybe we should remember that when we consider immigration reform and decide how to deal with the 10 to 12 million “undocumented” men and women who mostly just want to work really hard to feed their families.
3. Finally, Cinco de Mayo is a great opportunity to celebrate the rich Mexican heritage and embrace the many ways our neighbors have enriched our own country. And yeah, it’s a pretty good excuse to hoist a Margarita or two, dip some guacamole, and kick up your heels.
This article was also posted on The Elephant Journal.
Tags: Abraham Lincoln, Cinco de Mayo, Civil War, empire building, fiesta, France, General Zaragoza, Hometown Prophet, immigrants, immigration reform, Margaritas, Maximilian I, May 5th, Mexican, Mexican heritate, Mexico, Mexico City, Napoleon, President Juarez, Puebla, undocumented