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  • Natalie Taylor

What is so important about Cinco de Mayo

Natalie Taylor

This month we move toward a major celebrations in Mexico—Cinco de Mayo—Fifth of May. In the US there is confusion about the date, many think that this is Mexico’s Independence Day. It is not so, however, it is a very important date. What exactly happened and why is it celebrated?

Mexico expelled the Spanish crown and broke its colonial chains in 1821, after an 11 year war of Independence. But the path toward democracy and sovereignty did not happen overnight. The transformation from a viceroyalty to a self-governing country was a three-decade struggle with many different governments, most of them the result of military coups.

After gaining independence, the nation was divided into two factions—the Liberals, who envisioned a democracy similar to the one in the United States, and the Conservatives, who believed that monarchy was the best way to govern. The two sides radically disagreed on all issues: governing system, social structure, education, and the role of the church.

The first ruler of the new Mexican state was Agustin de Iturbide who was crowned emperor by the Conservatives in 1822. His reign did not last long, in 1824 he was shot, ending what is known as the first Mexican Empire. Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana was elected president of Mexico, but his presidency was not accepted by all. Benito Juarez, a brilliant lawyer from Oaxaca challenged Santa Ana and was declared president as well. For the next thirty years the country was divided between the followers of the two men—Santa Ana and Benito Juarez; two seats of government each claiming the right to rule the country.

Augustin de Iturbide Benito JuarezAntonio Lopez de Santa Ana

During this period, Mexico lost more than 50 percent of its land following the incursion of the United States. What is known in the US as the Spanish-American War, was in reality a land-grab from a sovereign nation. The US attacked and defeated Mexico In 1848, incorporating Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Texas, New Mexico and California as part of the United States of America.

The Conservatives saw the turbulent times as an opportunity to once again install an empire in Mexico. Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and ruler of France at the time, decided to create a French puppet government in the vast lands of Mexico, giving him a foothold in America. The man chosen for the job was Maximillian, the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In late 1861, the French landed in Veracruz intent on conquering Mexico.

It was a propitious time for France, because the US was in the midst of the Civil War and hesitant in engaging in a foreign war.

The 6,000 men French army was well equipped, and well trained, and the troops moved toward the capital, hardly impeded by the lesser Mexican forces. They arrived in Puebla and laid siege to the city.

President Benito Juarez had quickly assembled a ragtag army of 2,000 men who faced the French forces. A betting man would have certainly predicted a victory for the French, but there was one factor that so often figures in lopsided battles—esprit de corps. It is the feeling of loyalty, fellowship, and a commitment to win to-the-death, which seems to create super-human powers in battle. Ironically, it is a French term, but that day it belonged to Mexicans.

The smaller Mexican army fought from dawn till nightfall on May 5, 1862 and the French finally retreated, having lost nearly 500 soldiers. Although the French-Mexican war continued for several years before Napoleon III was fully expelled from America, the Battle of Puebla is a commemoration of the bravery and tenacity of the Mexican army on this one particular day. It has come to represent the glorious potential of a weaker nation standing up and stopping a much more powerful invader. This esprit de corps demonstrated by Mexico in 1862 is being repeated today by the Ukrainian forces fighting off Russia’s invasion.

Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day, but it is perhaps even more significant. It’s a celebration of the indomitable human spirit, the ability to stand up for what is right, the refusal to surrender one’s land even on pain of death. Long live the memory of Cinco de Mayo! Viva Mexico!

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