It amuses me that Cinco de Mayo is celebrated throughout the US, yet the day is barely mentioned in Mexico (with the glaring exception of the city of Puebla, of course). Why is this? There are some legitimate reasons that aren’t well known–hence the irony. In the US we celebrate a Mexican holiday that is worth being celebrated, and we celebrate it more than it is often celebrated in Mexico . . . while completely unaware that there is a very legitimate reason that we should celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the US!
Cinco de Mayo in Popular Culture
In the US, Cinco de Mayo (the 5th of May) is celebrated as a day to show Mexican pride for all the Mexican-Americans in the US. However, I’m beginning to believe that the day is taking a turn like St. Patrick’s Day–you know, how EVERYONE is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day? After all, the holiday is beginning to catch on among the anglo crowd, making it a great excuse to drink Coronas and margaritas. Just like on St. Patrick’s Day, when everyone claims Irish ancestry, everyone can pretend to be Mexican on Cinco de Mayo.
The Real History
After investigating the holiday a bit, it turns out that there really is a reason why Cinco de Mayo should be celebrated more in the US than in Mexico. Of course, that’s not the reason that it is celebrated there, but it´s good to know that there SHOULD be a reason more solid than a serious margarita craving.
Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle between the Mexican army and the French on the 5th of May, 1862. At the time, Mexico owed quite a bit of money to the French government, and France was tired of waiting to be paid back. They decided that if Mexico wasn’t going to pay them back, they’d just take over the country.
When you’re the most powerful country in the world (as France was at the time), I guess it seems like a reasonable solution.
Easier Than Usual
Normally, this would have been a trickier plan to pull off, as the US should have stepped in with the Monroe Doctrine and told France to shove off. However, this was 1862, and the US was knee-deep fighting amongst itself in the Civil War. France knew they would have no problems with the US, beyond a memo expressing the US’s extreme displeasure. I’m guessing that France didn´t lose any sleep over that. The US’s resources were all tied up, so France felt it was a pretty sure bet that they would have no US intereference when they invaded Mexico.
They were right.
Also, keep in mind that this France was a few decades removed from Napoleon (Napoleon III was the emperor in 1862) and France´s army had long been established as the world´s superior military force. They were just about assured to breeze into Mexico City and be in control of the government within a few months.
Who Would Have Thought?
But they were stopped at Puebla–for reasons still not quite understood. France’s army boasted 6000 troops against Mexico’s 2000. The Mexicans did not have the superior training of the French army or up-to-date weapons. But they held their ground and drove France back to Veracruz. The fact that they overcame all odds in defense of their country is the reason why the Battle of Puebla is still studied by schoolchildren all over Mexico and celebrated every year in Puebla.
As Kevin Costner said as Robin Hood in Prince of Thieves, “one man defending his homeland is worth 10 hired soldiers.”
That sums it up pretty well.
Don’t understimate Mexicans!
The Battle, But Not the War
However, a year later, France regrouped, marched again to Mexico City, and succeeded in overthrowing the government. (Or, at least sending Juarez’s government on the run for the following five years.) So, in the end, did the events of Cinco de Mayo have any lasting significance?
19th Century Globalization
The events of Cinco de Mayo did not necessarily have a long-lasting effect for Mexico, but it sure made a world of difference for the US. In early 1862, the Confederacy still had the upper hand in the Civil War. The Battle of Gettsyburg had not yet happened. Had France been able to seize Mexico City in May or June of 1862, they would have been just in time to send much-needed soldier reinforcements and supplies to the Confederacy through Texas. France had solid reasons for supporting the Confederacy in their fight for independence, and there is little doubt they would have–had they had the chance.
However, they had to wait until 1863 until they were in a position to help. By that time, the tide of the war between the US and the Confederacy had turned. The help France could have sent in 1863 or 1864 would have been futile. Thanks in part to the events of the 5th of May, in the city of Puebla, the United States is the country it is today.
If it wasn’t for what happened on Cinco de Mayo, it’s entirely possible that the US would be half the size it is today.
We think Cinco de Mayo is just a day for Mexican-Americans to celebrate their Mexican heritage?
(Although that isn’t a bad reason to celebrate it.)
But it’s not the only reason!
While we wash down the chips and salsa with a few margaritas or Coronas this Cinco de Mayo, keep in mind that the US would be half the country it is today if it wasn’t for a few thousand very brave Mexican soldiers defending their country against a very powerful foreign power.
While defending their country, they protected our country, too.
So maybe we really need to give up on the idea that “Mexico needs to pay for the wall”.
If it weren’t for the Mexican army in 1862, we wouldn’t have a Texas border to put a wall on, anyway.
Want More Reading on Cinco de Mayo?
Serra, Justo. The Political Evolution of the Mexican People. Translation Ramsdell, Charles. University of Texas Press. 1966.
Cinco de Mayo historial painting courtesy of Mike Manning on WikiCommons.