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This Day in Resistance History: The Battle Behind Cinco de Mayo

May 5, 2011

To many people in this country, Cinco de Mayo has become a day to celebrate the Americanized version of Mexican culture. Supermarkets have specials on taco shells, tomatoes, and salsa. Bars have Cinco de Mayo happy hours. Some communities have fiestas on the 5th of May. But most people here don’t know what event is being remembered on this day, and many Americans believe that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s “Independence Day.” It’s not; in Mexico, this day is not even a national holiday.

What Cinco de Mayo is, most compellingly, a reminder of the struggles that Mexico has endured against imperialistic interests, and how often those struggles have taken place throughout Mexico’s history. The day is the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, a key event in an invasion by France to seize control of Mexico not long after the Mexicans had managed to free themselves from Spanish rule.

The Franco-Mexican War started in 1862, when the United States and the Confederacy were battling across the American South. The Second French Empire, ruled by Napoleon III, invaded Mexico with initial support from Great Britain and Spain. France’s excuse was that it needed to call in debts that Mexico owed to the Second Empire, but it soon became clear that France’s true intent was to conquer the country.

The French were enthusiastically supported by the elitists and wealthy landowners; by the powerful Catholic clergy; and by the most conservative political elements in Mexico.

The Battle of Puebla came early in the war, and it was both the first significant battle and the first defeat of the French by the Mexicans. French General Lorencez was certain that the entire country would capitulate at the first show of French force. In this, he was seriously mistaken. The Mexican Army, bolstered in number by Mexican peasants and farm workers, managed to hold the line against the French army, even with the disparity of troops—approximately 5,000 Mexicans facing an estimated 12,000 highly trained French soldiers.

The Mexicans not only repelled the initial attacks, they dug in on the hills between Puebla’s forts to defend them. After its “shock and awe” beginning, the French army began to run out of artillery ammunition. Lorencez attempted at the beginning of the battle to hold back his reserve troops so that he would have a full force with which to attack Mexico City. But he found himself having to put all his reserves forward, unsupported by artillery fire.

Mexican General Zaragoza attacked both flanks of the French army at the same time, while peasant troops concealed themselves along the escape route out of Puebla to do the maximum damage to French troops as they retreated. Lorencez tried a second attack on May 7th, but was unable to make even the slightest headway against the Mexicans as they fiercely defended the city.

This remarkable defeat of European imperialists forces was not to last, however, despite some support from Abraham Lincoln, who had his own agenda in aiding the Mexican cause. Historian James Cockcroft has noted that Lincoln provided armed troops to keep the French from using U.S. Southern access points to enter Mexico, and even provided arms to the Mexican Army. Lincoln did this because he knew that a French-controlled Mexico would side with the Confederacy and might given it enough clout to win the American Civil War. He continued his support in order to ensure that a government led by Benito Juárez, strongly anti-Confederate, would end up in power.

Ultimately, the French seized Mexico City and conquered the country, turning its government into a monarchy. Napoleon III installed one of his relatives, the Austrian Archduke Maximilian Ferdinand, as the monarch. He chose the title of Emperor of Mexico, and ruled with his wife, the former Princess Maria Charlotte of Belgium, called Empress Carlota.

But the Mexican people continued to battle during the five years of French monarchy. Especially remarkable was the commitment of the Mexican working class, who were treated little better than serfs during this period of history. Their determination would not permit foreign invaders to swamp their country. In May of 1867, Mexico City was re-taken by the Mexican people, and the self-styled Emperor was executed. Carlota went mad, and was sent packing to Belgium, where she spent the rest of her life in an asylum-like seclusion.

One of the ironies of the supposedly liberal Juárez government once it took control was that it added, rather than detracted, to the power base of the Mexican landowners. Having switched sides and become de facto “liberal” supporters, the landowners gained additional resources when Juárez nationalized Catholic Church property. The consequential boom in real estate speculation further impoverished the working class and led to the development of an aggressively exploitative form of agrarian capitalism. The elite, having gained this additional power, ultimately installed dictator Porfirio Diaz. The Mexican peasants and workers would again have to go to war to topple Diaz in 1910.

Mexico also continued to fight off various powers as they tried to possess, to raid, to plunder the country’s resources. This included attempts by Great Britain to seize Mexican oil production in the 1930s. And today, Mexicans are waging another battle—against U.S. agribusiness and other capitalist maneuvers made seamlessly easy by NAFTA. Since the Mexican government’s acceptance of NAFTA, the wages of industrial workers in the country have fallen 25 percent. 700,000 Mexican farmers have lost their land. And the number of immigrants leaving Mexico for the U.S. has doubled.

Today, Cinco de Mayo, a largely commercial holiday made popular in the 1940s, is used today by American advertisers  “as a marketing opportunity for corporate America.” It will be marked by the sale of tacky decorations, fiestas, tequila, parades, mariachi music, and Americans’ weird interpretations of Mexican food. (Can anyone say “wet burrito”?)

What would be a better acknowledgement of the Battle of Puebla is to honor the ánimo of the Mexican people, and stand in solidarity with them as they continue to struggle against foreign invasions and the capitalist agendas that fuel them.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Brett Colley permalink
    May 5, 2011 6:33 pm

    Thanks for the history lesson…a perspective much needed.

  2. Kate Wheeler permalink
    May 5, 2011 7:32 pm

    Thanks for reading it, Brett–I’m so glad you found it interesting.


  1. This Day in Resistance History: The Battle Behind Cinco de Mayo (via Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy) « The Wobbly Goblin

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