CINCO DE MAYO
No, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day – that happens on September 16. Cinco de Mayo commemorates a Mexican militia victory over the French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, during the Franco-Mexican War (1861-1867).
After a long and bloody struggle, Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, only to endure both an extended period of civil turmoil and the Mexican-American War (1846-48). European powers, especially England and France, regarded the American Civil War as vultures, hoping to reassert their colonial interests in North America after the carnage ended. When, in the 1860s, Mexico failed to make payment on debts it had accumulated with France, Napoleon III used the default as a pretext for invasion. He hoped, while the United States was preoccupied with internal strife, to acquire territory that would position France to take advantage of the anticipated collapse of American democracy. Napoleon attempted to install his relative, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, as the emperor of Mexico.
France invaded Mexico along the shoreline of the state of Vera Cruz and began marching towards Mexico City, a distance of less than 600 miles. The French troops, already badly weakened by an epidemic of yellow fever, met resistance at Puebla, when a poorly armed militia of about 4,500 Mexican guerrillas, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, hid themselves in the town’s baroque churches and rained bullets down on the invaders. The militia was able to repulse the better equipped French army on May 5, 1862. Although Maximilian was eventually installed, he only ruled until 1867. After the American Civil War ended the United States provided assistance to Mexico to oust the French, and Maximilian was executed. His bullet ridden shirt remains on display at Chapultapec Castle in Mexico City (if Maximilian’s story interests you, watch the 1939 Hollywood film Juarez starring Bette Davis as his wife, Carlota).
Considered a minor holiday in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo became a celebration of Mexican culture in the United States when Mexican-American communities in the American west began to mark it with mariachi music, parades and street fairs. It has grown in popularity, especially in areas of the United States with large Hispanic populations.
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