Many people mistakenly think that Cinco de Mayo is the holiday that celebrates the Independence of Mexico from Spain. In reality, Mexico gained its Independence from Spain on Sept. 16, 1821, so Cinco de Mayo celebrates an event that took place 42 years later! This is an example of how our understanding of history can and does change, and of how we often continue to perpetuate this misinformation.
Actually this holiday celebrates a small, but important battle at Puebla in 1862 where the Mexicans defeated the French army as it invaded Mexico. As a young, independent nation, Mexico had accumulated heavy debts to several nations. At this time France wanted to expand its empire, so it used this debt as an excuse to invade Mexico and place Archduke Maximilian, a relative of Napoleon III, on the throne. The United States was involved with its own Civil War conflict, so it was in no position to oppose this action. In fact, the South was hoping to get financial aid from France if it supported this aggression.
The French Army with 6,500 men landed at Veracruz and marched toward Mexico City. Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, with a small and poorly trained force of 4,500, confronted the better trained and better equipped French Army near Puebla. They successfully defeated the French and temporarily stopped the invasion. When Napoleon received the news of the defeat, however, he immediately sent an additional 30,000 troops to achieve his conquest. The French then seated Maximilian on the throne. Nevertheless, the victory at Puebla gave the Mexican people a moment of glorious victory and helped develop a sense of national unity, which was cause for celebration then and now.
Interestingly, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated most vigorously in the state of Puebla than in any other part of Mexico.
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated more and more as an excuse to have a holiday with a Mexican theme. People enjoy drinking margaritas and beer, hearing energetic Mexican bands, and eating delicious enchiladas and burritos. Unfortunately, commercialism has taken over, and we have lost sight of the historical significance of the day when the infant Mexican nation was momentarily successful in its fight for nationhood and freedom.
SHERRY NORD MARRON lives in Costa Mesa.