May 5, 2000

History of Cinco de Mayo

What Do Mexicans Celebrate on

Cinco de Mayo (May 5th)?

By Eduardo Rojas Vega

Having inherited troubled finances, a bankrupt treasury and army after the War of the Reform, Mexican President Benito Juarez declared a two year moratorium on the payment of Mexico's foreign debt. The outcry in Europe was anguished. On Oct 31, 1861, the representatives of Queen Isabella II of Spain, Queen Victoria of Great Britain, and Emperor Napoleon III of France, signed the Convention of London by which the three nations agreed on a joint occupation of the port of Veracruz to collect their claims. The purpose was to occupy the customhouse and apply all customs receipts to the debt. The Convention text stated that their intention was not to impair the right of the Mexican nation to choose and freely constitute the form of its own government.

War of Occupation

England and Spain were sincere but France, a month after the Spanish and British withdrawal, brought 4,500 troops and began marching inland on its war of occupation. Their objective was to occupy Mexico City. Gen Latrille, commanding the French troops, was informed that the French would be welcomed with open arms in Puebla (conservative and proclerical just like today), and that the local clergy would shower them with magnolia blooms and would offer a special Te Deum in their honor.

President Juarez assigned the defense of Puebla to Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza. Encountering unexpected opposition on May 5, 1862, Latrille attacked recklessly and within 2 hours the French had expended half of their ammunition. The decisive action of the day was carried out by young Brigadier Gen. Porfirio Diaz who later that afternoon repelled a determined assault on Zaragoza's right flank. The invaders, witnesses of more glorious days in Crimea, retreated to lick their wounds in Orizaba.That's how May 5 —Cinco de Mayo— would be added to the national calendar of holidays!!

Maximilian Named Emperor

The French, after 1 year of preparation, reattacked Puebla and made their way to Mexico City. Maximilian of Habsburg was named Emperor of Mexico attending the invitation of the conservative "Club de Notables" led by Miguel Gutierrez Estrada and Father Francisco Javier Miranda. Although in intention Maximilian was not a monster and acted in ways that the conservatives and clergy criticised (declared free press, proclaimed general amnesty for political prisoners, donned regional costumes, ate local food, and suggested that many priests he met could profit from some basic lessons in Christian charity), he signed the October decree in 1865 by which the death penalty was made mandatory for all captured Juaristas still bearing arms and was to be carried out without appeal within 24 hours of capture.

Maximilian Depossed

After Napoleon made the decision to withdraw his troops in early 1867, Maximilian was left in an impossible position. He thought of abdicating his throne but his sense of Hapsburg dignity, and the hope that his wife's pleas to Napoleon, Pope Pius IX, and even Queen Victoria would bring military support again, convinced him not to abdicate. Maximilian took command of the Mexican Imperial Army but quickly found himself surrounded by republican troops. Although plans had been laid for his escape, he surrendered to General Mariano Escobedo on May 15,1867. Tthe emperor would be tried and the state would request the death penalty.

In spite of a rain of pleas for clemency from European Monarchs, New World Presidents and delegations of tearful supplicating women, Juarez remained adamant. On the morning of June 19, 1867, after having received the last sacrament, Maximilian was led to The Cerro de las Campanas, in Queretaro and executed along with Miramon and Mejia, two conservative Mexican officers. As tragic as this event might appear, fifty thousand Mexicans had lost their lives fighting the French.

Many historians say that after the failure of this attempt to tamper with Mexico's sovereignty, Mexican nationalism and self-esteem began to grow perceptibly for the first time in history.

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