Monday, May 05, 2014

cinco de mayo is not spanish for beer

Happy Cinco de Mayo to all of you!

I need to say that here because the Spanglish-speaking crowd has pretty much abandoned the quickly-heating sands of our beaches.  And because most Mexicans do not celebrate the day.

There is an urban myth that most Americans believe that Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican equivalent of the Fourth of July -- a celebration of an American nation's independence from a European colonial overlord.  I have never seen a poll that would verify the myth.  But I cannot gainsay it.  The American grasp of the history of other countries is -- well, how to put it delicately -- slightly wanting.

Even the Mexicans I have talked with during the past few days have had a slippery grasp of what the day is all about.  My favorite was the young man who thought it had "something to do with the Americans taking away the northern half of Mexico -- or beer."

So, here is my version of why some people will be celebrating the 5th of May.

From the day it became independent in 1821, the nation's leaders were split into two factions -- conservatives (who were supporters of the Catholic church, Spanish culture, and a centralized government) and liberals (who were anti-Church, looked to the European Enlightenment for culture, and supported federalism).

For almost forty years, the two factions fought each other politically and often physically.  The civil war we know as The Reform War (a war caused in part by the confiscation of Church property by the liberal government) ended in 1860 with
Benito Juárez (a liberal) as president -- and the conservatives plotting revenge.  They found an ally in a very odd place.  In France, the home of the Enlightenment so beloved by liberals.

Forty years of battle, including the loss of half its territory a decade before, had left Mexico in dire financial straits.  To keep its accounts afloat, successive governments had borrowed money from Europe and the United States.  And now it could not re-pay those debts.
Juárez did what any debtor would do under the circumstances.  To pay the daily expenses of his administration, he suspended interest payments on foreign debts for two years.

One of the wiliest (and silliest) characters to ever sit on the French throne was Napoleon III.  He dreamed of restoring the glory of the Bonaparte name -- both in Europe and in Latin America.  He envisioned a French empire in middle America that would increase France's glory while simultaneously preventing the United States from becoming a world power.

The place to start was Mexico.  Mexican conservatives and Church authorities had persuaded him that the Mexican people longed for a return to Crown and Church.  They just needed a leader bold enough to show the way.

Napoleon III found a perfect emperor for his new colony of Mexico in Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, the younger brother of the Austrian emperor.  And he found the perfect political mechanism in the Tripartite Alliance.

Mexico owed large debts to Britain, Spain, and France -- and their citizens.  To collect those debts, the three nations joined in the Alliance and hatched a plan that they would seize the Mexican port of Veracruz, apply the custom duties of the port to re-pay their debts, and then negotiate with the Mexican government for further payments.

It all worked as planned until the British and Spanish saw that France's agenda was something they could not support.  They took their troops and went home in April 1862.

That left the French commander, the Comte de Lorencez, on his own with his French troops.  Even though there were Mexicans prepared to join the French cause, Lorencez rejected the offer believing that Mexican forces were inherently inferior to his French troops.  He also believed the romantic nonsense that the Mexican people were ready to welcome the return of the Crown and Church to Mexican soil.

So, off he marched with no more than 6,000 troops to capture Puebla on his way to Mexico City.

Puebla was guarded by two forts on separate hills -- Loreto and Guadalupe.  The Mexican general in charge of the defenses, Ignacio Zaragoza (whose scholarly face adorns the 500 peso note, at least, the notes that have escaped the frog face caricature of Diego Rivera) who exhorted his troops: "They have come to take their country from you."

Lorencez's arrogance knew no bounds.  In the same show of hubris that would send French officers into battle in World War One armed only with a walking stick, he sent his troops into battle with bayonets.  And no artillery support.  The day was 5 May 1862.

Three times he marched French flesh against the Mexican trenches and fortresses.  Each time he failed -- thanks, in large part to a brave brigadier general by the name of Porfirio Diaz, who disobeyed orders, and repelled the French. 

The French finally retreated when Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, decided to send a downpour.  The French, some of the best troops in Europe, retreated wet and defeated to their base camp.

It was a victory by default.  But a victory, nonetheless.  And it gave Mexican patriots hope that they could actually beat back Napoleon III's attempt to build an empire.  For a time.

That time was one year.  Napoleon III sent a full corps of his best troops to Mexico along with a new general.  On 17 May 1863, the French returned to Puebla.  The Second Battle of Puebla had a different outcome.

The French would take Mexico City and Maximili
an I would sit on the Mexican throne as the country's second post-Independence emperor.  At least, until 1867.  After Napoleon III withdrew his troops to deal with more pressing Prussian matters, Maximilian and his Mexican generals were defeated and executed before a Mexican firing squad.

But on Cinco de Mayo, we are not celebrating merely the bravery of the Mexican forces that managed to survive defeat.  We are celebrating the spirit that every nation celebrates when invaders are defeated.

Even though Cinco de Mayo is not a federal holiday, and most of the country will not pause to celebrate what the day means, we can all stop for one moment and wish Mexico well.

¡Viva México!

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