Cinco de Mayo
An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

On May Fifth, people celebrate a historic event of great significance to North Americans. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the anniversary of General Ignacio Zaragoza's defeat of the French at the small village of Puebla.

  Performing Ballet Folklorico
 Celebrating Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. 
While Cinco de Mayo is merely a date in the Spanish language, it represents a significant event in the history of Mexico. Cinco de Mayo is also widely celebrated in many Mexican-American communities as the triumph of a people over oppression. The roots of this observance are actually very complex and can be understood more clearly when we realize that, for nearly 300 years up to 1821, Spain dominated the Mexican people, culture, and government. Even after Mexico fought for and achieved its independence, the legacy of colonialism lived on for many years.

In 1855, after two decades of Conservative administrations, the Liberal Party, advocating a system of government similar to that of the United States, came to power in Mexico. This change in government led to a period of significant political change and untold violence known as La Reforma (The Reform). In a series of sweeping decrees brought about by the Constitution of 1857, special privileges were abolished. These laws threatened the established order -- the large landowners, the Catholic Church, and the army -- all of which had occupied a privileged position during the colonial period and under the traditional Conservative governments.

The changes were so drastic that a three-year civil war broke out. After a great deal of bloodshed, the Conservatives were finally defeated. However, the war had been costly, not only in lives lost, but in regards to Mexico's economic resources. Mexico's agricultural and mining production, upon which the national economy had depended, ground to a halt, causing the Mexican government to incur a heavy foreign debt. President Benito Juarez became the leader of the economically prostrate republic in 1861. But the Conservative leadership, still determined not to let the Liberals stay in control, appealed to outside forces for help. The Conservatives had come to believe that the answer to the problems of Mexico lay in the establishment of a monarchy under a foreign prince. Their search brought them to France, then under the rule of Emperor Napoleon III.

Napoleon III had been eager to surpass the glories of the first Napoleon. During this time, Napoleon's army was reputed to be the finest in Europe with the best weaponry and excellent training, leadership, and experience. Conservatives meeting with Napoleon in Paris assured him that a French invasion of Mexico was feasible and that French forces would be warmly welcomed by the Mexican people. In April 1861, the United States had become engulfed in its own Civil War and was not likely to offer much opposition to a French invasion.

In July 1861, the Juarez government declared a two-year moratorium on the payment of Mexico's huge foreign debt. In those days, international law permitted the use of armed forces by creditor nations in such situations, so in October 1861, the chief creditors -- Great Britain, France, and Spain -- protested to Juarez and signed the Convention of London, by which they agreed on a joint occupation of the port of Veracruz to enforce their claims. The three powers proceeded with their joint military intervention, but, after a short operation, Britain and Spain withdrew. France, however, continued its occupation of Veracruz and started to march inland to occupy Mexico City and take control of the entire nation.

On April 19, 1862, 6,000 seasoned French troops under General Latrille set out to capture Mexico City, 400 miles inland. Informed by the Conservatives that the French would be welcomed with open arms, General Latrille marched toward the small village of Puebla. On May 4, the French camped in sight of Puebla on a plateau, approximately halfway between the coast and Mexico City. The next day, General Zaragoza, commanding the Mexican forces, decided to attack the French forces, hoping to cripple or slow their advance in order to give precious time to the Mexican army in the capital.

The decisive action of the day was carried out by young Brigadier General Porfirio Diaz, who repelled a determined but reckless assault by the French on Zaragoza's right flank. The Mexican soldiers, lacking battlefield experience and armed with outdated artillery and muskets, attacked with determination and fervor. In a four-hour battle, the Mexicans suffered only 250 casualties, while inflicting heavy losses on the French. Losing nearly a thousand men, the French withdrew back to the coast to await reinforcements. The French waited for a year before they began to move back inland. However, this time, the French forces, numbering 30,000 troops, were able to take Mexico City, where they installed Maximilian of Hapsburg as the Emperor of Mexico. Juarez and his government were driven to the border of Texas.

As it turns out, Emperor Maximilian, the younger brother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, was not what the Conservatives had hoped for. While refusing to rescind the liberal reforms of his predecessors, Maximilian also declared a free press and proclaimed a general amnesty for political prisoners. But he also signed a decree in October 1865, in which the death penalty was made mandatory for all captured Juaristas still bearing arms. In early 1867, Napoleon decided to withdraw his troops and Maximilian was left without support. Taking personal command of the Mexican Imperial Army, Maximilian found that he lacked the support of the people and was quickly surrounded by republican troops. On May 15, 1867, Maximilian surrendered to General Mariano Escobedo. A month later, Maximilian was executed, ending -- once and for all -- French influence in Mexico.

Fifty thousand Mexicans lost their lives fighting the French forces. But the experience, however tragic and costly, led to the beginning of a national self-esteem which began to grow perceptibly in the years to follow. Even during the French occupation, many of the Mexican people had celebrated Cinco de Mayo as a holiday in the areas not under French occupation. In time, Cinco de Mayo came to symbolize national pride and the triumph of the people over foreign occupation.

The United States strongly supported the Mexican government's resistance to the French occupation. It is for this reason that Americans and Mexicans alike share the observance of this battle as a time when the people of both nations recall their struggles to preserve political freedom against the meddling of foreign powers. But, in some ways, Cinco de Mayo has even more significance in the U.S., where it is recognized as an opportunity to celebrate Hispanic culture.

Copyright by John P. Schmal. Read more articles by John Schmal.

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he recently coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, John is presently collaborating with Eddie Martinez -- a graphics illustrator -- on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."