Cinco de Mayo: It’s a Texas Thing
Last Sunday was Cinco de Mayo and we Texans celebrated it like we are all of Hispanic heritage. Many people hold the mistaken notion that Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexico’s independence from Spain, but that was achieved over a course of years between 1810-1821, long before the event that is celebrated on May 5. While Cinco de Mayo is a pretty minor holiday in Mexico, it has evolved into a huge event in the southwestern United States, especially in Texas. Just as everyone is Irish on St Patrick’s Day, everyone is Mexican-American on Cinco de Mayo. Despite what our current political climate would have one believe, it is our diversity and our blending of cultures that has made this nation strong. On special days, we revel in celebrating that mix!
So, if Cinco de Mayo has nothing to do with getting rid of the Spanish, what does it celebrate? Like the title of one of my favorite movies, it’s complicated.
For the first half of the 19th century, Mexico experienced much political and financial upheaval that too often descended into chaos. When the protracted eleven year struggle for independence finally ended and Spanish authorities withdrew, Mexico was left with a political vacuum and in serious financial straits. Mexico experienced no fewer than 44 different governments between 1821-1854. During that period, she struggled with insurrections and revolts and fought a war on her own soil that culminated with the ceding of territory that now comprises a large part of the southwestern and western United States. By the time Santa Anna was ousted in 1854 and a liberal government was formed, Mexico already owed considerable sums to European lenders.
From 1854 to 1861, the liberal government tried to force the Catholic Church to sell all of its holdings and tried to abolished all corporate property ownership, which included the common native tribal lands. Between its property fight with the church and the violent revolts of some of its citizens, Mexico’s military had had enough and instigated a coup. Instead of bringing about peace and stability, the coup resulted in two national governments being formed, one put in place by the conservatives and the other led by the liberals who had actually won the most recent election. Basically, the conservatives controlled the old administrative area of central Mexico and the liberals controlled the rest of the country. The liberal government enacted a law abolishing all mortgages on private property held by the church, which ensured the support of the landholding class. The conservative government in Mexico City collapsed and in 1861, the liberals led by
Benito Juarez won a national election by a landslide.
Unfortunately, the sweet taste of victory was short-lived for Juarez headed a government in financial ruins. To try to make inroads against the deficits, the new government began nationalizing church property, refused to pay debts incurred by its conservative predecessor, and defaulted on loans held by European creditors. Mexico was now ripe for European intervention.
Britain, Spain, and France all sent naval forces to Veracruz, Mexico for the purpose of getting their money back. Britain and Spain negotiated repayment schedules and withdrew. French Emperor Napoleon III, however, saw this an opportunity to gain colonial territory at Mexico’s expense and told his troops to stay put. He also had a strategic eye on the turmoil created by the US Civil War. He surmised that Washington would not be able to enforce the Monroe Doctrine while its treasure and troops were being consumed by war with its rebellious southern states.
Late in 1861, a large contingent of French forces disembarked at Veracruz and by late April, 1862 began their march on Puebla, their first stop on the way to Mexico City. President Juarez ordered a new battalion formed to meet the French challenge. The French troops were among the most elite, best trained, best dressed, and most well armed and supplied armies in the world. The newly formed Mexican battalion had little training, few arms, and even fewer supplies. Some of the Mexicans were armed only with machetes and iron tipped spears. May 5, 1862 is definitely a New World David and Goliath story.
That the Mexicans won the battle is astounding, but they had a little help from Mother Nature and the French General Lorencez. In his hubris, Lorencez failed to take into account the sturdiness of the old Mexican forts that guarded the way to Puebla and the foolishness of placing his cannons over a mile away from those forts. Instead of attacking the vulnerable town, he attacked forts with thick, almost impenetrable walls. His cannons’ shot lost enough momentum as it traveled the mile that it had little effect on the forts’ walls. He moved his artillery closer, but this changed the trajectory. When cannon fire failed to make a dent in Mexican’s defenses, Lorencez ordered frontal attacks on the forts. The Mexicans were positioned on the ramparts so that they fired down on the advancing French from above and from breastworks and trenches. Three times the Mexicans repelled the French attackers. Then, it started to rain. The heavy rain and mounting casualties forced Lorencez to retreat and the Mexicans won the day. They celebrated by singing “La Marseillaise,” which Napoleon III had banned because it was the song of revolution.
Winning a battle is, of course, not the same as winning the war. Two years later, the French took Puebla and Mexico City, forcing Juarez into exile. With the backing of Mexico’s conservatives, Napoleon III placed the puppet king Austrian-Habsburg Maximilian on a spurious, newly fabricated throne. He stayed there until 1867 when the United States funded a resistance. The rightful Juarez government was reinstated and Maximilian was executed.
When news of The Battle of Puebla reached Texas, Tejanos, who had initiated fiestas parties celebrations shortly after Texas won independence from Mexico as a way to maintain their cultural heritage, celebrated the victory. The celebration took hold as immigration brought more and more Mexicans to the US so that by the 20th century, Cinco de Mayo celebrations had become an entrenched part of southwestern culture. It is a way for those of Mexican descent to remain connected to their heritage and for the rest of us to have a great excuse to party with great food, tequila, margaritas, and cervazas!
Additional Reading and Resources
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.