Wednesday, May 05, 2021

cinco de mayo is not spanish for beer

I was at Banamex this morning attempting to complete my divorce proceedings from the bank. When I greeted Sergio with "Feliz Cinco de Mayo," he gave me that slightly bewildered look that I get from my Mexican friends this time of year.

To northerner
s "Cinco de Mayo" sounds like something most Mexicans would celebrate. The importance of the day may be a bit vague, but, in The States, it is a party day.

Here is the reality in Mexico.

Mexico only has seven federal holidays, and Cinco de Mayo is not one of them. But it does make the cut as a "civic holiday," where it is more accurately known as a celebration of 
Batalla de Puebla (the Battle of Puebla). That makes it holiday enough for the post office to close, but for most people here, not a memorable day.

It is a big day for fiestas in Puebla because that is where the events transpired that make this an important day in Mexican history. It is far more than a day to buy Corona. 
Cinco de Mayo was a small event in Mexico's bigger historical picture.  But it is a story worth telling.

There is an urban myth that most northerners 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 northern grasp of the history of other countries is -- well, how to put it delicately -- slightly wanting.

Even the local Mexicans I have talked with 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." 

From the day Mexico 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: France, the home of the Enlightenment so beloved of 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. President 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. If he had not existed, Monty Python would have conjured him up. 

He dreamed of restoring the glory of the Bonaparte name -- both in Europe and in Latin America.  That included a French empire in middle America that would increase France's glory while simultaneously preventing the United States from becoming a world power. Triangulation with a French twist.

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.  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 adorned the 500-peso note when I moved to Mexico) exhorted his troops: "They have come to take our 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 walking sticks as weapons, he sent his troops into battle only 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 (a man who would soon enough be known to all Mexicans in another role), 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.  Just over a year later, on 17 May 1863, the French returned to Puebla.  The Second Battle of Puebla had a different outcome, and the imperial tricolor was raised over the fortresses.

The French seized Mexico City and Maximilian I sat on the imperial Mexican throne as the country's second post-Independence emperor.  At least, he did 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 won a great victory on 5 May 1862, but also managed to survive defeat until their oppressors were expelled from Mexico.  We are celebrating the spirit that every nation celebrates when invaders are defeated.

All of us can honor those values.

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