True History Behind Cinco De Mayo

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Our neighbor to the south is in the news a lot lately, so it’s a good time to shore up your knowledge of Mexican history – and what better day to start than Cinco de Mayo? And here’s the most important fact to know: contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexican Independence Day. Mexican Independence Day, which is a national public holiday, is celebrated on September 16 (be sure and drop that casually tonight over tequila shots and margaritas and you’ll sound super smart). In contrast, Cinco de Mayo is the anniversary of the Mexican army’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War in 1862.

I know what you’re thinking: why is one win so important? Like much of history, it’s because the win – much like, say, our Battle of Germantown – gave the revolutionaries hope.

As in the United States, Mexico struggled to find its footing as a new country. After gaining independence from Spain in 1822, Mexico juggled a few different kinds of governance. Eventually, the country separated into two parties: Liberals and Conservatives. Conservatives tended to side with more traditional European policies, including a number of privileges granted to the Catholic Church. Among those privileges were a number of exemptions from tax. In contrast, the Liberals weren’t keen on the granting the Catholic Church any special privileges and sought instead to limit them.

In the mid-19th century, the Liberals rose to power. Part of their agenda included passing a number of “Liberal Reform Laws.” The first of those laws, the Juárez Law (named after former Mexican President Benito Juárez), was meant to restrict the authority and scope of the Church courts. A second law, the Lerdo Law (named after former Treasury Secretary Miguel Lerdo de Tejada) allowed the government to confiscate Church land and – you guessed it – tax it. A third law, the Iglesias Law (named after controversial interim President José María Iglesias – sorry, Mom, not Julio), put further restrictions on the clergy.

As you can imagine, as more and more laws were passed which restricted the rights of the Church, the Conservatives became agitated. Eventually, the two factions – the Liberals and the Conservatives – went to war. The civil war happened at roughly the same time as the one in the United States which would have significance here at home (trust me, keep reading).

Wars, of course, are expensive. And while most of Europe was happy to stay out of conflicts in the Americas, they weren’t thrilled about the loss of resources, including money. So when, in 1861, then President Mexican Benito Juárez defaulted on a series of debts owed to European countries, the Europeans sent the equivalent of armed thugs to Veracruz to collect. Eventually, Britain and Spain negotiated a deal and returned home but France, spurred on by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (also called Napoleon III), stayed, determined to make a statement and perhaps snag some additional land. That was the beginning of the Franco-Mexican War (1861-1867).

Despite the fact that France had more resources, it was initially unable to press too far into Mexico. However, as the conflict heated up, France became more successful, making inroads into the country. Once the port city of Veracruz was captured, sending the Mexican government fleeing, the spirits of the revolutionaries sank.

However, that was about to change. A seemingly insignificant battle in Puebla de Los Angeles on May 5, 1862, became a symbolic victory for Mexico: it emboldened a poor, beleaguered resistance movement into believing that they could win. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Mexicans fought back against the French, who retreated after a heavy day of losses, including the loss of 500 soldiers. Mexico, in contrast, lost just 100 soldiers. Mexican historian and philosopher, Justo Sierra, wrote, about the day:

its moral and political results were immeasurable. The entire nation was thrilled with enthusiasm. Surely no Mexican, whatever his party, was downcast by the victory. The remotest Indian village felt the electric current of patriotism that sped like lightning through the land, awakening many a sleeping conscience. The people were inspired to make a supreme effort.

The battle didn’t end the war. It raged on for several more years and France seemed to have the advantage, eventually capturing Mexico City. But fierce Mexican resistance, together with support from the United States, helped Mexico secure a victory in 1867. The timing wasn’t coincidental: by the mid-1860s, we had officially stopped fighting each other in our Civil War. The United States, which had largely ignored foreign affairs during wartime, then claimed that France was in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine, which was crafted in 1823 under our President James Monroe, was a declaration that we would stay out of European affairs if Europe stayed out of North and South America (existing colonies excluded) and that failure to do so would be considered an act of aggression. When France wouldn’t leave Mexico, we took the opportunity to flex our muscles, sending troops – and a message – to the border. The Mexicans fought on and an increasingly weak French army eventually surrendered to the Mexican Republic.

Today, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated throughout the United States perhaps more than in Mexico. It’s generally a normal day in Mexico – except in the State of Puebla where the battle was won – and most government offices remain open (unlike on Mexican Independence Day when government offices are closed).

The United States likely benefited more from the battle than did Mexico: the French were so occupied with Mexico that they were not able to significantly fund or assist the Confederacy during our own Civil War, despite the best of intentions. The Union, of course, was funded through a series of government taxes, including the Internal Revenue Act of 1862, the precursor to our modern tax system. Since the French were sympathetic to the Confederacy, had the French easily taken Puebla in 1862, freeing up military and other resources, the entire course of history might have been changed.

So, it all comes down to power and money and taxes – like most conflicts these days. Ponder that over a nice plate of tacos tonight. Salud!

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