|April 29, 2002|
Setting the Historical Stage
In Spanish, cinco de Mayo means "fifth of May." The holiday of Cinco de Mayo, sometimes mistakenly thought of as Mexican Independence Day, may not be as well-known or as widely celebrated as St. Patrick's Day or the Chinese New Year, but it does have an important historical context. Why is this date so important in the history of Mexico?
In the 1850s Mexico entered a period of national crisis. The strong religious and military communities resisted a series of social, political, and economic reforms introduced by the liberal government. The government collapsed, and civil war broke out. Benito Juárez, a former minister of justice, became the country's new president and moved his capital to Veracruz. The conservatives formed a competing government and made their capital in Mexico City.
The United States recognized the Juárez government and encouraged Americans to volunteer and fight for the liberal cause. Spain, France, and Great Britain backed the conservatives. In late 1860, the liberals won a decisive battle in the civil war. The conservative president fled, which paved the way for Juárez's return.
In an effort to rebuild the country's economy, Juárez declared a two-year moratorium on the repayment of foreign debt to the English, French, and Spanish. He promised that after this suspension, payments would resume.
The three European governments reacted aggressively, deciding that getting their money was worth the price of invading Mexico. The countries organized to send a collective military force to Mexico. However, the English and Spanish governments quickly withdrew their contingents over an argument with the French. But the French persisted and prepared to send troops across the Atlantic.
Some historians claim that Napoleon III's desire to occupy Mexico was fueled by his intense dislike for the United States and the Monroe Doctrine. (The Monroe Doctrine stated that the United States would oppose any European invasion into the Americas.) A French stronghold in Mexico would thwart the United States' growing power and strength. Napoleon III shrewdly banked on the fact that the United States, in the midst of its own civil war, would not interfere in the events in Mexico.
With state-of-the-art equipment and the French Foreign Legion at his disposal, Napoleon planned a traditional military assault on the Mexican capital, Mexico City. Once the capital had fallen into French hands, he believed the rest of the country would surrender.
A Surprising Victory
Not to be defeated, Napoleon ordered his troops to wait for reinforcements. In 1863 he sent
30,000 additional troops to Mexico, and once again, Puebla came under siege. The Mexicans
could not hold their ground, and after depleting their ammunition and food, they surrendered
to the French. Maximilian became Napoleon's puppet ruler in Mexico, but his rule was
short-lived. In 1867 Colonel Diaz reclaimed Puebla, bringing an end to Mexico's era of
While the initial victory at Puebla on cinco de Mayo was overturned, it remains important in Mexican history for the following reasons:
Colorful talavera ceramics, candy made from sweet potatoes (camotes), and one of Mexico's tastiest mineral waters are all native to Puebla. Tourists flock to the state's many hot springs and numerous waterfalls. Due to its proximity to Mexico City, Puebla is also important from a commercial and economic standpoint. (The Volkswagen plant in Puebla is one of only two in the world that produces the famous Volkswagen Beetle.)
Geographically, the state of Puebla is situated in Mexico's central tablelands. Its capital, Puebla, is about 180 miles southeast of Mexico City. Puebla is Mexico's fourth largest city.