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For better or for worse, Cinco de Mayo—like Saint Patrick’s Day—has become one of what NPR writer Linton Weeks calls America’s Alcoholidays: those holidays that have become “widely celebrated by people who have no ties to the traditions they spring from” through the festive adoption of national colors and costumes, and the excessive consumption of national alcoholic beverages. Think about it. What would Saint Patrick’s Day in America be without the least Irish of us parading about in green while swilling Irish whiskey and chasing it with dyed beer? What would Cinco de Mayo in America be without the least Mexican of us shooting tequila while sporting a sombrero? Everyone has an opinion about whether the “mainstreaming” of such holidays is a good thing or bad thing, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day. Spending this Cinco de Mayo in France, the big question for me today (putting aside my “least Mexican”-ness) was whether I could—or should—be celebrating it here.

I’d wager that most Americans who are off imbibing great quantities of José Cuervo today don’t have the foggiest idea what they’re commemorating. Cinco de Mayo is not, contrary to popular opinion, Mexican Independence Day. That’s September 16, the day on which Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest in the town of Dolores, announced the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 (“El Grito de Dolores” or “El Grito de la Independencia“). Cinco de Mayo, on the other hand, marks the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla in 1862, when the Mexican Army defeated a superior force of French soldiers. The French? The French were in Mexico? Why, yes. Indeed they were …

You see, in 1861, the President of Mexico, Benito Juárez, suspended all foreign debt payments because the government had almost been bankrupted by the Mexican Civil War of 1858 and the Reform Wars of 1860. Mexico’s European creditors were none too pleased, and Spain, Britain, and France sent naval forces to Veracruz to strong-arm Juárez into an agreement. Spain and Britain negotiated and withdrew, but the French—under the leadership of one of the biggest jerks of the 19th Century, Napoléon III—decided to stay. Napoléon, as it turns out, had used the Mexican debt crisis as a ruse to initiate a military operation there. He had this wild-eyed plan to establish a sprawling Mexican Empire in Latin America under the suzerainty of the French. The plan even involved something they called “the Cactus Throne.” Seriously. The guy was a bit of a megalomaniac.

Benito Juárez, President of the Mexican Republic, the good guy

Napoléon III, Emperor of the French, kind of a jerk

In any case, to make this plan come together, the French army left Veracruz and marched on Mexico City. On May 5 near the town of Puebla, they encountered the remnants of the Mexican army, ill-equipped and half its size, holding its ground after having retreated from an engagement the week before. To everyone’s shock, the underdog Mexican forces crushed what was touted as the best army in the world, delivering the French their first significant military defeat since Waterloo. That night, the victorious Mexican forces celebrated by singing La Marseillaise within earshot of the remnants of the French army. Ouch. That smarts.

Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, a rather pathetic character

In the end, the Mexican Republic didn’t survive the French invasion. The French succeeded in seizing Mexico City a year later, and they installed Maximilian I (Napoléon’s cousin) on that Cactus Throne as the Emperor of Mexico. The Battle of Puebla, however, came to assume mythic power for the Mexican resistance, and Napoléon’s Latin American pipe dream came to a rude awakening just a few years later.

Considering all of that, I guess celebrating Cinco de Mayo here in France might not go over very well. It would be kind of like celebrating the Seventh of October if I lived in England, right? Yeah, the Seventh of October. You know … October 7, 1777 … the Battle of Saratoga. SARA … TOGA … the battle where we beat the British and turned the tide of … oh, never mind. You’re right. If I celebrated the Seventh of October in England with an American flag and a Bud Light, I wouldn’t be stepping on anyone’s toes. I’d be lucky if anyone even asked me what I was drinking to. I suppose the same is true today here in France. So … I guess what I should be asking is:

Where’s my sombrero and that bottle of tequila?

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Salud !

P.S. — Part of Napoléon’s grand scheme for the Americas was to weaken the United States’s influence in the region to make room for his own. That’s one reason he tacitly supported the Confederacy during the early years of the American Civil War. It’s hard to measure the impact that the French defeat at Puebla had on the outcome of the Civil War, but it’s undeniable that French support for the Confederacy waned afterwards and the French alliance long hoped for by the Confederacy never materialized. The French imperial adventure in Mexico also fueled support for the Mexican resistance within the Union. It has been noted that Mexicans and Americans in California jointly commemorated the first anniversary of Cinco de Mayo in 1863 by raising money and recruiting soldiers to aid in Juarez’s resistance against the French. That may not explain the irony that Cinco de Mayo isn’t a Mexican holiday, but it may help explain why Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican-American one.

For a relatively short but thorough account of the Battle of Puebla and the international politics of the time, see William Moss Wilson’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times, “Remember, Remember, the Fifth of May.”

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

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4 thoughts on “Cinco de Mayo … or, Telling Napoléon III to Step Off

  1. Thanks! I learned a LOT! Fabulous history…….. And also, I’m going to stop mentioning that Buttes Chamont Park was Napolean III’s idea as I usually say it with affection, cause I didn’t know that he was such a JERK! ;-)

  2. Excellent post, thanks so much. So interesting, and almost ALL of it is new to me. I nver even bothered to look to see what Cinco de Mayo really was. But you have cleared it up beautifully.

  3. Pingback: “Give me your tired, your poor … | je parle américain

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