Cinco de Mayo 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.

Expanding Empires
Napoleon III, Emperor of France, believed the exiled Mexican conservatives who assured him that the Mexican populace would support a monarchy and a strong religious state. Napoleon III intended to create an empire on Mexican soil. With his plans — and military — in place, he tapped a European prince, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, to rule his new North American satellite. (The Archduke also happened to be Napoleon's cousin.)

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
Waiting for the 8,000 French (and rebel Mexican) troops on May 5, 1862, at Puebla, were about 5,000 Mestizo and Zapotec Indian troops commanded by General Ignacio Zaragoza and Colonel Porfirio Diaz, the commander of the Mexican cavalry. The French general Charles Latrille Laurencez ordered a frontal assault on Puebla. As Diaz's troops rode to battle the French, Zaragoza's fighters held their position and forced the French to retreat. About 1,000 Mexican soldiers died in the battle.

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo
The Mexican victory at Puebla has come to symbolize a struggle for freedom and independence. But it is not Mexican Independence Day. Mexico became independent from Spain in 1810.

Cinco de Mayo is also known as the Battle of Puebla or Batalla de Puebla. Logically enough, a great deal of celebrating takes place in the state of Puebla, and although the holiday is recognized nationally, celebrations in other areas of the country are low-key. Throughout Mexico, members of the military publicly swear their allegiance to the country on Cinco de Mayo.

In many Mexican American communities, Cinco de Mayo festivities have become increasingly popular and usually include mariachi music, dancing, and parades. That spirit of celebration is depicted in the postage stamp below, which was issued by the United States Postal Service in 1998.

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 occupation.

While the initial victory at Puebla on cinco de Mayo was overturned, it remains important in Mexican history for the following reasons:

  • It marked the beginning of the end of European occupation in the Americas.
  • It filled the Mexicans with pride and paved the way for Juárez's reforms.
  • It symbolized the right of the people to defend themselves against a powerful, foreign invader.
The State of Puebla
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.

More Links
If you're working on a project, you can get more general information about Mexico from the CIA World Factbook. National Geographic has an excellent interactive special, "Discovering Mexico."

Learn about the Cinco de Mayo holiday from Mexico Online.

Visit Goliad, Texas — birthplace of General Zaragoza — online.

The state is bordered on the west by a volcanic mountain range and by the coastal plain on the east. The Popocatépetl Volcano is about 30 miles west of the capital city, Puebla. The volcano is not particularly active; there has been no significant activity since December of 2000. But according to the United States Geological Survey, any type of eruption would be potentially catastrophic as more than 30 million people live within view of the volcano.

    Questions? Comments? Write to the editor: editor@riverdeep.net

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