If each holiday celebrated in the U.S. were made into a t.v. show, Cinco de Mayo would be the telenovela – the soap opera. It has a crazy cast of characters, far-fetched scenarios and multiple plot twists. Join us as we go back in time to the wild 1800s to investigate the origins of this Mexican-American holiday celebrated across the U.S. today.
Our scene opens on April 10, 1864: an Austrian archduke is declared the Emperor of Mexico by a French monarch, Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s a strange story with an even stranger ending, but let’s start at the beginning.
Flash back five years prior: It’s 1859 and the Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian is offered the post of Emperor of Mexico. Who would do this? A group of Mexican monarchists – aristocrats – led by a man named José Pablo Martínez del Río. I’m not sure why, but I picture him with a mustache. Whether it’s because he hates men with mustaches or simply because he is not interested, Ferdinand does not accept the offer. Instead he heads off for adventure on an expedition to the Brazilian rainforest. Cue exotic wildlife.
Meanwhile, a ruler by the name of Napoleon III is engaging in what Wikipedia euphamistically refers to as “adventurism in foreign policy.” In typical soap opera villain fashion, the character with a dark side shows no redeeming qualities – sorry Napoleon III fans. History shows the man waged war against rulers everywhere- from Europe to China to Russia to East Asia. Pivotal moment in the plot: In 1862, Napoleon III turns his military attention on Mexico. The pretext? The refusal/inability to pay its foreign debts by the Mexican Republic.
Spoiler alert? : Knowing that Napoleon III succeeded in establishing Emperor Maximilian on the throne and that the French involvement in Mexico lasted from 1862 to 1867, you would think that French troops came in, were victorious in 1862, remained in power, then were ousted in 1867. Right? Sure you would. But you would be wrong.
Plot twist: In fact, in 1862 – on May 5th (Cinco de Mayo) to be exact – the Mexican army shocked the world by defeating the unstoppable French army in the Battle of Puebla. It’s an epic battle scene. No nation in the previous half century had managed to defeat the French. Not only that, but the French outnumbered the Mexican troops 2:1, with 8,000 French soldiers and only 4,000 Mexicans.
In another twist: As fantastic as the victory was, it was short-lived. The French sent 30,000 troops and by 1863 succeeded in capturing Mexico City and establishing Emperor Maximilian I as the sovereign of Mexico. The t.v. version would have a lavish coronation ceremony, though in real life Maximilian’s reign is too unstable to have such a ceremony. Actually, his rule is rather short, cancelled after only a few seasons.
In a side plot: The guerilla Mexican forces have remained active through his reign. In 1865 they receive a boost from the U.S. First scene: U.S. Union soldiers return home triumphant. Next scene: crates and crates of guns and ammunition are shown being supplied to the Mexican guerillla fighters by U.S. troops. Scene three: an impressive naval blockade prevents reinforcements from arriving from France.
Final scene: French troops withdraw from Mexico in 1866. Maximilian is shot to death on June 19, 1867. Benito Juárez, the leader of the Mexican independence fighters liked Maximiliano personally but had to send a message to the world. He is shown pacing, struggling with the decision as the gunshot goes off. Cue credits.
Disclaimer: while the events are described with levity, they were very serious and historically significant. Not once since the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 has a country in the Americas been invaded by a European military force.
Today the reign of Emperor Maximilian is a distant memory with the main traces being the Chapultepec Castle, where Maximilian and Empress Carlota resided. In the Mexican state of Puebla, May 5th continues to be celebrated as a regional holiday. However, in the rest of Mexico, it is not widely observed. It is in countries such as the U.S., with a significant Mexican-American population that Cinco de Mayo is typically hailed as a day to celebrate the Mexican-American culture and experiences.
A holiday that like other American holidays celebrating ancestry embraces all people, we can all raise our cervezas in a toast to Cinco de Mayo. Salud, amigos!