It’s Cinco de Mayo. ¡Olé! Break out your ridiculous, oversized straw sombrero, the bright poncho you bought in the airport at Cancun, and head to your nearest Chili’s. It’s time to celebrate that very special Mexican day! But…what is it again that we’re celebrating?
Cinco de Mayo is a commercial holiday in the U.S.—one that is used to sell beer and tortilla chips, advertise dinner specials at restaurants and offers a good reason for Mexican-themed parties at colleges everywhere. In Mexico, however, Cinco de Mayo isn’t even a federal holiday. The date commemorates May 5, 1862, when the Mexican army defeated the much larger French army that had invaded Mexico at Veracruz and was making its way to Mexico City. But the Mexican victory at the Batalla de Puebla was short lived. French troops continued to press on and a year later the French took Mexico City, and occupied the country for the next three years under the rule of Emperor Maximilian I, who was handpicked for the job by Napoleon III.
But wars, invasions and politics are never that simple. One must consider that Mexico had only just gained its independence from Spain 50 years earlier. And Mexico had just ceded half its territory to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War and the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. At the time of the French invasion, the U.S. was starting its own civil war.
Before the French landed at Veracruz, Mexico was already unstable. President Benito Juarez imposed a series of liberal reforms, known as La Reforma, which included restricting the privileges of the Church, taxing church land, declared all citizens equal, and advanced a capitalist economy based on that of the United States. But Juarez and his government had enemies in the conservatives who wanted Mexico to be ruled under a quasi-monarchical government like the one that had existed during the First Mexican Empire.
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Civil war ensued. Juarez and the Liberals won, but the country was essentially broke. Juarez chose to renege on loans Mexico owed Europe. This caused the British, Spanish and French to advance to Mexico and collect some sort of payment. The French, with an army of 30,000, decided to take the whole country. Apparently, Napoleon III had plans to help the Confederate side of the U.S. The sketchy plan was that he would emerge with a new empire, from the Mason-Dixon line all the way down to Guatemala.
The May 5 Batalla de Puebla did help the Union side in the U.S. Civil War. Historians suggest that the Mexican victory slowed the progress of the French. By the time the French finally took Mexico City, the U.S. Civil War was coming to an end. Napoleon III installed the archduke of Austria, Maximilian Ferdinand, as emperor of Mexico.
But Maximilian I and his wife, Carlota (Charlotte of Belgium), were doomed from the start because of their own liberal ideals. Maximilian I banned child labor, instituted limited working hours, restored the communal land system, abolished capital punishment and helped the poor by forgiving all loans larger than ten pesos. Maximilian I also instilled some of the reforms Juarez had proposed; extending voting rights to those who did not own land and promoting religious freedom. These policies were too liberal for the conservatives in Mexico who had helped bring him to power. Maximilian I lost his allies quickly. When Napoleon III withdrew his troops, Juarez and the liberals finally captured Maximilian I on May 11, 1867 and executed him a short time later.
In all, Cinco de Mayo is just a minor blip on the complicated radar of Mexican history. But if you do choose to celebrate, raise your Corona with lime to Maximilian, a reluctant emperor who tried to do the right thing, or to Benito Juarez and his efforts to return control of Mexico to its people.