Despite what some people inaccurately think, Cinco de Mayo does not mark Mexican Independence Day (that would be Sept. 16). The holiday, rather, commemorates the 1862 battle of Puebla that Mexico fought and won against the advancing French army, led by Emperor Napoleon III…Today the holiday is celebrated in the town of Puebla, but it’s not an obligatory holiday in the country.
Still, that doesn’t really explain why the day is so popular in the U.S. Cinco de Mayo started to come into vogue in 1940s America during the rise of the Chicano movement. And much like every other holiday in existence, it became commercialized — in this case, by the alcohol companies trying to tap into the Hispanic market. Thus was born a day of drinking tequila while wearing a stereotypical sombrero. So much for supporting Mexican pride and nationalism.
Cinco de Mayo is more of a holiday in the U.S. than in Mexico. Mexicans know that in the second Battle of Puebla in 1863, French troops crushed the Mexican army, days later occupied Mexico City, and continued to rule Mexico for the following four years.
The French Emperor Napoleon III dared to send troops to occupy Mexico only because the United States was preoccupied with its own War Between the States, a.k.a. our Civil War. When our war ended, we massed a huge American army on the Texas border with Mexico and informed the French Emperor that under the Monroe Doctrine we would not tolerate European control of Mexico.
Napoleon III beat a hasty retreat, leaving his installed “liberal” Hapsburg puppet “Emperor of Mexico” Maximilian I to be overthrown and executed by the locals in 1867. But drinking their beer each Cinco de Mayo, educated Mexicans bitterly remember that it was pressure from the United States that liberated their country from French colonial rule. The cultural residue of French influence in Mexico remains in many odd ways, e.g., the hired singers called Mariachis, whose name (despite frantic Mexican nationalist denials) was first used in 1852 and probably derives from the French word for marriage that arrived via the surreal 1838 French incursion known as “the Pastry War.”
France could also be blamed for Mexico’s loss of what is now the western United States. Napoleon I sold the U.S. the Louisiana Territory, which created a potential legal claim to a large, poorly-defined share of the wild West. Napoleon I also overthrew the government of Spain and put his own brother on the Spanish throne, which plunged Spain’s colonies such as Mexico into political chaos. The resulting uprisings in Mexico ousted Spain and installed a domestic revolutionary government that could not control the centrifugal forces that broke apart Spain’s old North American empire in Mexico (as well as South America with the uprisings of Simon Bolivar and Jose San Martin).
Many who stayed in the New World remained loyal to Spain. Mexico thus sent troops three times into California to suppress revolutionary Californios who did not want to be ruled by newly independent Mexico. The lands now part of the western United States were slipping free from Mexico’s tenuous, anti-democratic control even before America moved to secure them (preemptively, as it were, before Great Britain attempted to do so).
When American forces arrived in California in 1846, half the Californios greeted the Trailblazer John C. Fremont (in 1856 to become the first Republican presidential candidate) and his men as liberators freeing them from Mexican tyranny. President Abraham Lincoln returned to the Roman Catholic Church the Spanish missions that the greedy and corrupt Mexican government had expropriated.
Spain might have a weak historic claim to the southwestern United States. But post-revolutionary Mexico has virtually no legitimate claim whatsoever, contrary to the propaganda of racist groups such as MEChA. Since such groups speak of a mythical land they call Aztlan that they aim to restore, were the Aztecs ever here? Apparently not, except for rare raiding parties to attack tribes near today’s Mexican border in search of fresh victims for its pagan human sacrifices. What sane person would embrace such a flimsy territorial claim?