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The real reason why gringos celebrate Cinco de Mayo

The real reason why gringos celebrate Cinco de Mayo

A painting depicting the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Public domain.

Cinco de Mayo is a very popular celebration in the United States, followed of course by another tradition “Seis de Hangover.” But contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day, nor even a date when Mexicans celebrate or party as a nation. On May 5, we remember the famous battle of Puebla (my hometown), when Mexico defeated the French army, which at the time was considered the strongest in the world.

As a born and raised “poblano,” I have a responsibility to educate people about the topic, so I want to try to talk about what actually happened, but also, why it is so important in the United States. I promise you’ll be surprised…

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It was 1861 and Mexico had just ended a long Civil War between the Conservatives, who were sponsored by European nations and the Liberals, who were supported by the United States. In the end, then president Benito Juarez and the Liberals won the war, but the country was in debt with all the foreign powers supporting both sides, which meant that England, Spain and France sent armed forces to collect their money.

Juarez managed to sign the Soledad Treaties in Veracruz with England and Spain. However, France, under the rule of Napoleón III, who wanted to revive the greatness of his empire,   decided to stay and invade Mexico to establish a territorial domain on the American continent, and started marching towards Mexico City.

Enter General Ignacio Zaragoza, renowned national hero and former face on the 500 pesos bills (sidenote: he lost his spot to Frida and Diego, and I think many here will appreciate that). On May the 5, 1862, Zaragoza commanded the army of the East (around 5,000 soldiers), facing not only the French army  of 6,000 thousand soldiers, but also a rebel conservative army lead by Leonardo Marquez, “the Tiger of Tacubaya,” who supported the invasion.

In the end, it was because of the support of a brave indigenous group from Zacapoaxtla and Tetela de Ocampo, who came in barefoot and armed only with machetes, that we managed to defeat the best army in the world in direct combat—something as epic as Lord of the Rings, but without Orcs.

Historical spoiler: The French came back with 35,000 soldiers, and managed to establish the Second Mexican Empire a few years later. Then why does this battle matters so much? Or rather, why is such a big deal in the United States?

I understand the charm of the holiday, I mean, if you get drunk on a random night you have a problem, if you do it in 5 de Mayo, that’s culture! But the truth is that the United States celebrates Cinco de Mayo for a reason that is overlooked until you pay close attention. Let me repeat again, the year is 1862, and a Civil War was being fought with the goal of creating two countries out of the United States. The French who would have felt much more comfortable dealing with two divided nations rather than one big power in the Americas.

This is just a popular historical theory, but had the French won the battle and taken over Mexico, they could have supported the South and the Civil War would’ve ended differently, and that’s why in the United States we put special emphasis on this holiday and not in the actual Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16.

I feel the need to educate people on this because of this debate on whether this is an appropriated celebration and who should and shouldn’t celebrate. As with cultural appropriation in general, I believe that commodifying and selling culture for the sake of profit is always going to be a problem, but everytime I see white Americans wearing a sombrero and a mustache, I feel happy that they don’t know we saved their country, and thanks to that the U.S. gets to exist the way it is… I guess, you are welcome America!

Story by: Arturo Mendez