cinco de drinko and Mexican independence

mexican-flag-historyIt’s bad enough that Americans sully the image of the Irish by turning St. Patrick’s Day into an excuse to consume mass quantities of green beer, but it seems as if no grossly misinterpreted “national” holiday is safe from this treatment.

Example: Cinco de Mayo.

The 5th of May is what that means, and of course, Americans use it as an excuse to drink a lot of beer and misinterpret the people of another nation.

Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s “independence day.”  Mexico claimed its independence from Spain on 16 September 1810, though the resulting war (which started in 1808) continued on-and-off until 27 September 1821. Technically, then, 16 September is Mexican independence day, and it is celebrated across Mexico as such.

Conspirators rebelling against the rule of Napoleon’s big brother, Joseph Bonaparte, declared Mexico an independent state. Joe ran Spain after Charles IV and Ferdinand VII abdicated. The independence movement wasn’t terribly widespread at first, taking several years to catch on; the so-called “New Spain” turned into the Mexican Empire, officially becoming independent in 1821.  The Spanish tried to take the territory back a couple of times, but finally recognized Mexico’s independence in 1836.

Cinco de Mayo, then, isn’t Mexico’s independence day – and it has nothing to do with Mexico’s independence from Spain in the first place.  I’d wager that it’s celebrated more thoroughly in the USA than it is in Mexico, where it’s more of a regional holiday than a national one.

On 5 May 1862, Mexico’s army defeated the French army at the Battle of Puebla.  France invaded Mexico in 1861 after Mexico’s government, in dire straits financially, said it would stop paying back its foreign loans for a few years until they got back on their feet.  England and Spain reached an agreement with Mexico, but France’s reaction was to invade.

France was taking advantage of Mexico’s instability; they had lost a war with the US in 1848, suffered through a destructive civil war in 1858, and had more internal strife in 1860 – all of which led up to the financial crisis in 1861.

France’s invasion force attacked Veracruz, won, and headed for Mexico City.  When the French army reached the Mexican state of Puebla, resistance stiffened despite worsening conditions for the Mexican army.

France’s army, then considered one of the best in the world, was about 8,000 troops; Mexico fielded about half that number, and they were poorly equipped and underprepared at best.  Against all odds, Mexico won a decisive victory at the Battle of Puebla, boosting the nation’s morale and hardening their resolve to resist the French incursion.

None of that ended up mattering in the long run; France followed up that defeat by sending 30,000 soldiers to Mexico, finally forcing the country into submission in 1864.  The US stepped in to aid Mexico after the US Civil War ended in 1865, leading the new Mexican king, Napoleon III, to abandon Mexico.  Mexico reestablished control over Mexico City and seated a new government in June 1867.

The “holiday” of Cinco de Mayo has its origins in California, making it much more an American holiday than a Mexican one. Go ahead & drink all you want, but at least know what it is you’re actually celebrating – and why.

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