The true story behind Cinco de Mayo, Mexico’s independence from France
SAN JOSE: The holiday of Cinco de Mayo has taken on more and more of a political significance in the past few years due to the illegal immigration from Mexico. Yet, the holiday would not have become a significant holiday except for its birth in Southern California in 1863. In Mexico, this holiday is a regional, not a national holiday. Many American citizens may wonder why Mexican Independence would not be a truly major holiday in Mexico. A simple answer is that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day.
It is not even close. September 16th is the date that all of Mexico celebrates as the Mexican Independence Day.
Cinco de Mayo’s elusive history
Cinco de Mayo literally translates to 5th of May, but it is not a day that is even remotely comparable to the 4th of July, or American Independence Day. Despite this holiday existing from the middle of the 1800s in the United States, the average American knows little of the history behind the celebration. Which is also true of Mexicans, both in the US and Mexico.
The holiday, in reality, is basically a remembrance of an extraordinary victory of Mexican patriots over a far superior French army.
The answer to that, unbelievable as it may seem, is that the Mexican nobility wanted them there. Elitists wanted to take “their” country, and its wealth, back from the common people.
The French Army had been sent across the Atlantic by Napoleon III to collect a debt.
However, there is a hidden history behind France’s nefarious invasion of Mexico. It was indeed a very precarious time for Mexico. The nation had emerged from the Mexican Civil War of 1858 in a seriously weakened condition. Additionally, the internal “Reform Wars” between “liberal” and “conservative” factions took a serious toll. This period of the nation’s history was dominated by “La Reforma.”
It came to a climax as democratic-minded “liberals” took control of the government. The people intended to create a more modern Mexican civil society. They intended to use the United States as a model for a stronger, more capitalistic economy.
The “liberals” were the common people of Mexico, descended from the Native Americans. They were rebelling against the nobility of Mexico. The nobility wanted to maintain control over the nation following Spanish dominion of Mexico being overthrown in the 1820s.
However, those from aristocratic “old world Spain” bloodlines were wealthy and landed “ or “patróns.” They and the “conservative” Catholics had essentially controlled Mexico from the time the Mexican people had overthrown the Spanish government.
The democratic-minded Mexicans win a great victory when the first Native American, Benito Juarez, becomes president.
So why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo?
Ironically, the reason that there is a Cinco de Mayo holiday was partly due to problems that confronted Benito Juarez. In the middle of the 19th century, Mexico’s economic woes were due to their internal struggles. Once there was a defeat of the Nobility forces on the battlefields and at the ballot box, Mexico’s elite sent envoys to Europe seeking aid to take their country back.
Non-government envoys met with officials representing Napoleon III. Those envoys of Mexico’s ruling class did invite the French to invade. The sought France to take over their nation in order to recover political power and to reassert control over the Mexican people.
Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was the first elected President of France from 1848 to 1852. Napolean II formulated an elaborate plan for the French to take over Mexico.
In 1861, newly elected Juarez faced a huge national debt left by the previous elitist government.
The new president faced hostility from the nation’s elitist politicians but was not aware of how far the former government elitists would go in order to destroy his administration. Napoleon III was made aware that the government of the Mexican nobility had borrowed huge sums of money from all three colonial “superpowers” in Europe.
By July 17, 1861, after deliberation over his options, Juarez issued a moratorium aimed at suspending all foreign debt payments for a period of two years. It turned out to be a bad move. Mexico owed lots of money to France, as well as England and Spain. The invasion was not about money, however, its express purpose is controlling the destiny of Mexico
War between Mexico and France begins
Juarez had made a grave mistake when he issued the debt payment moratorium. It gave Napoleon III an excuse to organize the three nations to call their notes due. The emperor and representatives of the governments of Great Britain and Spain met in London on October 31, 1861. They signed a tripartite agreement to pro-actively intervene in Mexico to recover the unpaid debts.
Then each government sent warships across the Atlantic. The ships reached Veracruz by December 8th. The combined military force seized control of the custom house. The obvious intent of the troika was to stay until they collected on their respective outstanding loans.
Juarez, threatened with the overthrow of his administration, sent representatives to Veracruz. They simply renegotiated the debt with Britain and Spain. Their troops got back onto their ships, sailing back to Europe. However, a French presence did remain.
In dealing with the French representatives, subversive plans of Napoleon III made any negotiations impossible. It became apparent that Napolean’s desire is reviving France’s global ambitions. He wants Mexico under French rule.
He would have made his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, quite proud. Using the crisis to establish a French empire in Mexico was very shrewd. Additionally, Napoleon the younger’s agenda had support from powerful members of the conservative elite of Mexico.
The Mexican nobility desire to return Mexico to the system of tyranny under the old Spanish dominion.
It had lasted for 300 years. The elitists wanted to reverse the popular election of Benito Juarez. They were fine with promoting a foreign power to invade and take over their nation in order to recover control over the Mexican people. The ostensive intent was to end the cycles of unrest and return the nation to “stability.”
But, they seriously wanted to remove authority from the Juarez administration.
The French troops in Veracruz waited until spring and then began marching to Mexico City. The first real battle took place near the village of Puebla.
In Puebla on May 5, 1862, the French battalions with 8,000 troops encountered a rag-tag band of Mexican patriots.
The Mexican contingent numbered about 4,000. It consisted of Mexican cavalry, regular troops, and Zapotec and Mixtec Indians. A herd of cattle was also stampeded into the oncoming French foot soldiers.
The French were better-trained, better-equipped, better-disciplined. The French force outnumbered their foe by a margin of approximately 2:1. Nonetheless, the French defeat in this battle is why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated.
The Mexican general, Ignacio Zaragosa Seguin, used all manpower and everything at his disposal, including the cattle. It was an amazing victory for the outnumbered Mexican force over the superior military strength of the enemy.
Certainly, the normally well-disciplined French forces may have lost courage against stampeding cattle. The Mexican cavalry was also apparently successful in their confrontation with the French cavalry. May 5, 1862, turned out quite badly for the French onslaught against the Mexican people.
The French did retreat and regroup after this famous battle. Nevertheless, this was a mere setback to the ambitious Napoleon III. The following year he sent more troops to Mexico.
French forces grew to 30,000 troops. In July of 1863, the invaders took over Mexico City. By 1863, Napoleon III did invite Maximillian von Habsburg, Archduke of Austria, to become Emperor of Mexico.
Maximillian von Habsburg – New Emperor of Mexico
Maximillian did accept Napoleon’s gracious offer, and on April 20, 1864, he became the Emperor of Mexico. Members of the Mexican aristocracy and the occupying French forces are successful in implementing Napoleon’s plans. They forced the Juarez government to flee Mexico City. Evading the forces Juarez flees North to the city of El Paso del Norte. That city is now Ciudad Juarez.
It is from this location, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, that Benito Juarez established his government in exile.
During this entire period of invasion and occupation, the United States was essentially unable to do anything to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Established by President James Monroe, the Doctrine says:
“With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European Power we have not interfered, and shall not interfere. But with the governments who have declared their independence, and maintained it, and whose independence we have on great consideration and on just principles acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European Power, in any other light than as a manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”
The U.S. could not help Mexico, even though the Lincoln Administration supported the Juarez presidency.
America was fighting for its own survival during the Civil War. But, Maximillian’s coronation officially made Mexico a French colony. This action violated the Monroe Doctrine. This being an act of war upon the U.S.
In 1864, Congress passed a resolution expressing opposition to the monarchy in Mexico. Lincoln also developed a new policy regarding the Latin American crisis. In addition to the Monroe Doctrine, it addressed the issue of sovereignty of the autonomous nations in the Western Hemisphere.
The Union prevailed over the Confederacy one year after Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant to be the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac. Tragically, Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865.
Nonetheless, President Andrew Johnson pursued Lincoln’s precedent and took serious action to force the French to leave Mexico. Without American intervention in Mexico, the people may not be celebrating Cinco de Mayo.
In fact, they may have been speaking French or German instead of Spanish. The history is significant. Today, Mexico should respect American sovereignty as the U.S. helped that nation recover their sovereignty. It is only fitting and proper.