Before you get your poncho and sombrero, take a look at these facts about Cinco de Mayo, so you know why youre drinking so much tequila.
When I was a kid, May was always one of my favorite months for the simple reason that it had a ton of holidays (yay, no school!). However, I remember how mad I would get whenever I saw on the news the huge Cinco de Mayo celebrations happening in the US with their colorful big sombreros, delicious food, and parties everywhere, when back in Mexico we got nothing but some random comments from the president and some allusions to it in school. I always wondered why we didn’t celebrate this day with that same enthusiasm when it was part of our Mexican history, and more importantly, why it was such a big deal in the US when they weren’t even involved in that episode. The thing is that, although it was an important moment in the history of our country, it wasn’t a big deal, really. So, before you start decorating, getting out the tequila, and prepping some delicious guacamole, here are some facts that'll help you know exactly what you are celebrating.
It’s not Mexico’s Independence Day.
For starters, and it's probably the most important clarification, this isn’t the celebration of Mexico’s independence. We celebrate our independence in September, and there are huge parties all over the country, where we gather with our families, drink tons of tequila, and listen to mariachi songs. The independence movement lasted ten years, and it was the first time that the people decided to fight against three centuries of oppression; that’s why this day is so celebrated.
It celebrates our victory in the Battle of Puebla.
Cinco de Mayo is the commemoration of the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862, against the French army, during what is known as the Second French Invasion. After a bloody war, the country ended up in a terrible economic situation, and for that matter, President Benito Juárez decided to stop paying the foreign debt that the country had with Spain, Britain, and France. He ended up negotiating with the first two, but the French had a lot of interest in the country as a strategic spot to expand their empire in America. After some battles, the French army victoriously reached the city of Puebla, but the Mexican Army managed to stop the invaders, thus winning their first battle against one of the most powerful and trained armies in the world.
Many people see it as the day of Mexican pride.
Naturally, this victory gave the Mexican people a sense of pride and nationalism that they hadn’t really experienced since their independence in 1821. This victory pushed the French army back for almost a year, and immediately after the news of the victory reached the capital, President Juárez declared the date a national holiday. However (probably the reason why we don’t celebrate this day that much), the following year Napoleon III sent more troops to Mexico, and eventually, they ended up taking the capital and installing what’s called the Second Mexican Empire by placing Austrian Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg as Emperor of Mexico. Still, to this day, the Battle of Puebla is remembered as the time when we managed to stand against a powerful empire.
It was the second French intervention.
As I mentioned before, this was the second French intervention in the country. The first one happened in 1838. This event is more commonly known as the Pastry War since it, allegedly, started after a pastry baker sent a complaint to the King of France, telling him that a group of Mexican officers had destroyed his bakery and wanted monetary compensation. In reality, the relationship between Mexico and France wasn’t going that well because France wanted to sign a business agreement that benefited them more, and the government had refused just as they had with the baker issue. This invasion lasted almost a year until the two countries signed a peace treaty in which Mexico had to pay the French the compensations they asked for. As you can guess, after their first experience, when the troops reached Mexico once again, they were determined not to be humiliated once again, so, although it was only a brief victory, it was considered a great success.
One of the Battle’s heroes ended up becoming one of Mexico’s greatest villains.
One fact that many Mexicans don’t know is that one of the main heroes of the Battle was none other than one of its greatest villains: dictator Porfirio Díaz. When the French troops reached Puebla, they installed a siege. However, the general in charge of the Mexican army, Ignacio Zaragoza, fell terribly ill. Díaz, who had been recently promoted to brigadier general, proposed to attack the French, but Zaragoza didn't feel ready to lead the troops, so he refused his proposal. Still, because Díaz was an ambitious young man, he disobeyed his general and decided to start the attack that took the French by surprise and ended up defeating them.
Why is it more popular in the US than in Mexico?
It’s a fact that Cinco de Mayo celebrations are huge in the US and pretty much nonexistent in Mexico, but why? At the time of the Battle of Puebla, the US was immersed in its own issues. For starters, it was the Civil War. In addition, it’s said that, besides invading Mexico for their colonialist ambitions, the French had a particular interest in supporting the Confederate Army, and succeeding in their invasion would mean they could support them better. For that reason, when the news of Mexico’s victory in Puebla got to the US, it was a great cause for celebration. When the Civil War was over, the government lent money to Juárez to fight against the Empire and send the French away from the territory. However, this wasn’t the only reason why the battle became so popular in the US. In the 1960s, many Mexican-American activists decided to create awareness about the date and make it a celebration of pride for their roots and traditions.
So, now that you know what you're really celebrating on May 5th, bring on the margaritas and the fajitas.
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Cover photo by @projectdoglife