I just typed “Cinco de Mayo” into google, hit “search” and clicked on “images”. This was the first thing that I saw:
It’s a promo banner from a website for the Turismo Tavern, a small bar in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. The website advertises “Marguerita [sic] and Sangria specials” for the duration of the day, and even provides a sentence-long explanation of the holiday itself; “Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of the Mexican defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla.”
I found that impressive. Most people have no idea what Cinco de Mayo actually is, and in fact, the holiday has become as non-descript as the banner above. Rather than a genuine holiday reflecting the historical significance of the fifth of May, it’s mutated into a vaguely-defined celebration of Mexican heritage which is celebrated largely in America. For most, the day is simply an excuse to binge on Corona and Jose Cuervo, much in the same way St. Paddy’s Day instigates the consumption of Guiness and Jameson.
Another similarity between Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day is that the historical reasoning – in both cases – has been largely forgotten. As a history teacher, I feel that I would be doing you a disservice to not attempt to rectify this issue… so here’s what you should know:
First, Mexican Independence Day is actually September 16. It is also known as “Grito de Dolores” or the “Call of Dolores”, and it celebrates the beginning of the Mexican war for independence from Spain. The “cry” for independence was made in the town of Dolores in 1810, though it was not officially achieved until 1821.
As briefly explained in the blurb above, Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of the Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla. But let’s go back to Mexican independence.
The period directly following independence from Spain was characterized by internal and external conflict. While independence was gained, the newly formed Mexican state was never a unified political entity as was the United States following the American War for Independence. As a result, Mexican residents lived in a constant state of political shifts, upheavals and revolutions. At the same time, Spain was angry that they lost their large American territory, and tried to violently retake it between 1821 and 1829. Despite sectionalism and continued turmoil, General Santa Anna rose to power (technically he was elected as president) in 1832. His inconsistent rule led to further political upheaval, and eventually the Texas revolution.
For years, the Mexican government attempted to incentivize the settlement of Texas by providing large spreads of land for relatively little money. This caused more than 20,000 Americans to move into this less-than-desirable territory at an alarming rate, though most – in typical American fashion – refused to follow the two main concessions of Texan land ownership: to convert to Catholicism and to not bring slaves into the territory. The centralized Mexican government attempted to stem the Americanization of the territory in the early 1830’s by eliminating the incentives and placing troops on the Northern border between Texas and the established states, which (as you can imagine) caused further violence. American settlers started the Texas Revolution, a bid for independence, to which the Mexican government (i.e. the president turned dictator Santa Anna) responded with a resounding “Fuck that! (subtext: this is a good way to unify my divided Mexican people.” As a result Mexican troops clashed with a standing Texan army under the leadership of Sam Houston. A series of conflicts (including the Alamo) led to the capture of Santa Anna who, in exchange for his freedom, agreed to withdraw his forces to the South of the Rio Grande. Texas became a free-floating territory until it was annexed as a state in 1845, which caused the Mexican-American War.
At that point, this unnecessary conflict (also known as the Invasion of Mexico) was inevitable. The Mexican government had threatened war if the US annexed Texas. At the same time, President Polk’s expansionist spirit and overall aggression ignited the spark of war. In 1846, Mexico declared a “defensive war” against America, and despite the leadership of General Santa Anna, by 1848 the United states had taken about 900,000 square miles of territory from their defeated southern neighbor, which extended the American territory all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
The years following Mexican defeat at the hands of the American forces is characterized by corruption, and further political unrest. A reinstated president Santa Anna sold tracts of land to the American government and squandered the majority of the money, and then went into exile (again) in 1855. The following years saw numerous attempts at political reform, which eventually led to a civil war – known as the War of Reform – waged between conservative hard-liners and liberal revolutionaries who believed that the Catholic church held too much political power.
So count it up. Over a period of about 40 years, the Mexican people were involved (mostly unwillingly) in four different conflicts: the war for independence, the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American War and finally the War of Reform. This left the people largely disheartened, and – more importantly for our story – the government incredibly in debt.
As with most newly-formed, independent, post-imperialist countries, their debt was mostly owed to the governments of historically-imperialistic nations, in this case the governments of America, France, Spain and Britain. Though some recompense had been made between Mexico and America by that point, in 1861, the three European powers united in a pact to attempt to recover their debt from what they perceived to be a failing nation. Napoleon III, the French Emperor, seized the opportunity for expansion, and committed forces to the occupation of Mexico in the hopes of taking control of their natural resources and using the country as a foreign base of operations. Napoleon III installed Maximilian Ferdinand, a member of the Hapsburg dynasty, as the Emperor of Mexico. Though this seems like a random happening, it was a necessary political maneuver on the part of Napoleon to placate the Roman-Catholic Church, which had supported the French incursion.
You may be thinking, “Where the hell is America in all this? Why aren’t they fighting the French? Why aren’t you just writing about food?” It’s simple really. The Americans were fighting each other. Between 1861 and 1865, the good ol’ US of A was divided North-to-South in what we know as the Civil War. So Washington was a little preoccupied to worry about their neighbor to the south. Actually, it wasn’t until the Confederate government reached out to the French in a bid for assistance that the Americans gave it a second thought.
As would any threatened peoples, the Mexicans rallied together in 1861 to resist invasion by the French armed forces, which were thought to be the best equipped and prepared in the world. On the fifth of May, 1862, a French force attacked the city of Puebla, a small (but important) city in Southern Mexico. In a surprising turn of events, the French forces were defeated by the Mexican resistance, and were forced to withdraw from the city. Though this did not significantly alter the greater French conquest of the country, the victory was used as a means of unifying the Mexican people in their fight against the French. May 5th – Cinco de Mayo – was declared a national holiday in order to celebrate the memory of this decisive victory.
While it was celebrated in Mexico, it was celebrated to an even greater extent by Mexican-Americans who saw it as a decisive victory against oppression. Taken in the context of the American Civil-War, the victory at Puebla has even been seen as a victory for abolition, as it may have stalled the French long enough for the Union army to rally against the Confederacy and keep Napoleon from influencing the outcome of the American Civil War.
Since the 1860’s, Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated in various ways in as many places, and as with many holidays, the true meaning was eventually lost in the haze of celebration itself. As the Mexican and Mexican-American identities continued to shift, so did the meaning of Cinco de Mayo. By the 1900’s the holiday had become a general Mexican-American celebration of heritage, while it was largely forgotten as a decisive victory against French oppression.
Eventually the US imposed sanctions on the French, who – under threat of war – were forced to withdraw their influence from Mexico. The conflicts of the 1860’s were overshadowed by the more political turmoil and upheaval, and the meaning of Cinco de Mayo was lost to history.
Now that you know all that, here’s my favorite salsa recipe to help you celebrate.
- 1/2 white onion
- 1 jalapeno, seeded and rough chopped
- 2 cloves of fresh garlic
- juice of 1 lime
- 1 large (28 oz or so) can whole or diced tomatoes (use fire-roasted or “Mexican style” for an extra boost
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper
- 1/2 tsp coriander
- 1 tsp cumin
Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender.
Consume, preferably with tortilla chips, as you revel in your new-found knowledge.