As a Ciudad Juarez transplant living in Italy about 10 years ago, I used to hang out at an American bar owned by a scruffy guy from Las Cruces, New Mexico. I used to hang out there because the owner liked to hear my stories from the land of enchantment and because it was one of the few bars in that posh neighborhood where I could get a beer for less than seven euros.
Every year, that bar hosted a big Cinco de Mayo party that attracted the American diaspora and the expat community in Milan. The Cinco de Mayo party was conducted in a very American fashion: nachos with cheddar cheese, chimichangas, Coronas, colorful margaritas with sombreros, and even the fake mustaches.
As the only Mexican at the party, I became the de facto expert on Cinco de Mayo, and I had to explain to curious foreigners why Americans celebrate it with such enthusiasm. As I tried to come up with a “Drunk History”-esque version of Cinco de Mayo I realized that, with the exception of the foreign service folks at the party, most of the crowd had no idea what this celebration was about. Some of my American friends showed some embarrassment as if they were having fun while knowingly violating the ambiguous protocols of cultural appropriation.
Some others confessed that they thought Cinco de Mayo was Mexico’s Independence Day, and there was one friend that said he thought Cinco de Mayo was just a Mexican-themed annual celebration, a Mexican version of Saint Patrick’s Day he said.
Contrary to what many people think, Americans are not appropriating a Mexican celebration on May 5. Americans should not by any means feel embarrassed about sipping tequila while dancing to mariachi songs on Cinco de Mayo (the fake mustache might be too much, though). This is actually a day Mexicans and Americans should celebrate together. Americans should recognize Cinco de Mayo as a celebration of the bravery and courage of their southern neighbors and their success in averting a possible French invasion of the United States.
In 1861, Mexico was broke and had not fully recovered from the Mexican-American war and from multiple internal disputes. To face this crisis, President Benito Juarez ordered the suspension of foreign debt payments to Spain, Britain, and France. The first two countries protested and threatened military action, but after some diplomatic negotiations, they agreed to wait for Mexico to honor its debt once its public finances recovered.
France, on the other hand, did not negotiate with Mexico and decided to invade in the spring of 1862.
France, under the rule of Napoleon III, had expansionist ambitions in Latin America and particularly in Mexico, and saw the suspension of payment as the perfect excuse to invade and establish a French-influenced Emperor in Mexico — El Maximiliano. Having a French-dominated country as the southern neighbor was something that was not welcomed in the United States as some of France’s oligarchs supported the Confederacy and relied on its cotton production for the production of textiles.
They also were a looming territorial threat, and the United States saw the French invasion as a threat to the Monroe Doctrine. Unfortunately for the Americans, they could not do much to help Mexico in 1862; they had their hands full fighting each other over slavery.
In late April 1862, the French, led by General Lorencez, took the city of Orizaba, Veracruz, and slowly moved to the west toward Puebla, a city of strategic importance close to Mexico City. General Lorencez, as stated in a letter he sent to Napoleon III, was convinced that their “racial superiority” over the Mexicans would allow them to take Mexico City in a matter of days once Puebla was conquered.
On May 5, 1862, the French launched an attack on the city of Puebla but did not count on the ingenuity of General Ignacio Zaragoza, who anticipated that General Lorencez, based on his idea of superiority, would launch a frontal attack on the Mexican forts, and with a small group of poorly equipped Mexican soldiers and some brave civilians armed with nothing but agricultural tools and machetes, attacked the French army from all fronts. The battle, according to historians, ended late that night, when the French survivors turned and ran from the fierce cavalry battalion led by the young Porfirio Diaz, the same guy who years later would become Mexico’s dictator and cause the Mexican Revolution.
Months after the Battle of Puebla, the French regrouped in Veracruz, took over Mexico City, and imposed Maximilian as the Emperor of Mexico. But Napoleon learned that Mexico was not the low-hanging fruit as he had originally thought. Napoleon’s support for Maximiliano vanished as he had to fight other wars. As his last resort to save his empire, Maximilian attempted to lure soldiers of the American Confederacy to fight for his cause. However, thanks to the friendship between President Benito and Abraham Lincoln, the French were finally expelled and Maximiliano was executed.
On May 5, 1861, Mexico defeated the best army in the world and kept the French empire away from the U.S. during a vulnerable time. Had they not succeeded, the Confederacy might have won the Civil War and the United States would be a much different place. I think these are reasons for Mexicans and for Americans to celebrate together.
Now that you know, go celebrate without regret. Raise your glass to General Zaragoza and the bravery of the Mexican Army and invite one of your Mexican compadres to drink with you.
A ningún Frances en aquel cinco de mayo, se le veían los pies y corrían sin parar — A song my grandfather used to sing.