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Opportunism, Execution and Madness: The Context behind Cinco de Mayo

History Hans
August 21, 2021

Cultural literacy for the Latin American history and language student is essential, especially if you plan on spending time in Latin America. Holidays, festivals, and official days to commemorate a battle or a saint fill the Spanish world’s calendar. In fact, I currently reside in Cartagena, Colombia, a place that marks more “fiesta days” than any other in the world! However, one Latin holiday stands out for most “Americans” or people of the USA- but do people really understand the meaning and historical context for this date? 

For most North Americans, Cinco de Mayo is a chance to indulge in some corona beer or a margarita, and enjoy some spicy Mexican food. In the USA, this Mexican holiday has been fully commercialized, but in Mexico it is basically an afterthought, barely celebrated outside of the province of Puebla. The indifference to this date simply reflects the fact that it is not Mexican Independence Day- that would be September 16th. 

The significance of the 5th of May dates from a battle in Puebla in 1862 when ambitious French and Belgium forces were intent on creating an empire or satellite state in Mexico. This battle was part of a harebrained scheme that eventually led to a depraved Austrian prince and his “mad” Belgium princess wife in becoming the “Emperor and Empress” of Mexico for a few years. The May 1862 battle was significant in the fact that Mexican forces repelled an ill-conceived French attempt on Puebla, and thus stands as a real and symbolic example of Mexican resistance to foreign invasion, the bitter taste of which was still fresh given the recent US-Mexican War of 1846-48 when the US succeeded in seizing vast western territories. Nonetheless, the Battle of Puebla was not the final battle, in fact the French made it to Mexico City and imposed their aforementioned puppet couple, our perverted Maximillian and his soon-to-be mentally unfit Carlota. Their stories alone are worth a novel or a netflix series. Carlota’s initial romantic enthusiasm for her new home of Mexico, (she writes of “hummingbirds and butterflies”), would soon turn into chronic paranoia, especially following her husband's execution.

Opportunism motivated Napoleon the Third, nephew of the original Napoleon. Both the USA and Mexico were engaged in their own respective civil wars. Mexican liberal leader Benito Juarez was confronted with domestic renegade and armed conservative opposition factions and also with European bankers/nations demanding debt repayment. Juarez put a stay on debt repayments, so the French, knowing that the gringos were distracted by their own civil strife, invaded in 1861. The French were aided by conservative Mexican forces and the Catholic church who were opposed to Juarez’s liberal agenda. By April 1864, the young Maximillian and his estranged wife settled into Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. Ironically, Maximillian had liberal personal views and even advocated for a limited monarchy based on some fundamental individual rights. Although well-intentioned, the royal couple were hopelessly naive about Mexico’s reality.  Juarez’s troops and guerrillas continued to fight, and once the US ended their civil war in 1865, the US openly called for French withdrawal, which was exactly what happened in 1867.  The empress Carlota (as she is known in Spanish) returned to Europe to beg Napoleon III and the pope for continued support for their Mexican Empire, but neither supported her anymore. Her mental health quickly deteriorated, especially after receiving news that her husband had been captured by Mexican troops, tried, and then executed in May of 1867 (see Eduoard Manat’s painting of the event). Poor Carlota would never recover her wits.

So, next Cinco de Mayo when you crack open your cold corona (though Dos Equis is much better), raise your bottle and salud in honor of Mexico’s resistance to foreign imperialism.

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