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Or As They Say In Mexico, “Not Our Independence Day”

May 5, 2020

Today was an important day in America, Cinco de Mayo. Today in Mexico? It was just Tuesday. (Taco Tuesday, but nothing more significant than that.)

For most Americans north of the border: You’re doing it wrong. The celebration, the history, just about all of it.

First, let’s talk about what Cinco de Mayo (literally “fifth of May” in Spanish) is not. It is not Mexico’s independance day. That is 16 September. In 1810, a priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued a call to arms to overthrow the Spanish government. His speech was called Cry of Dolores, or Grito de Dolores. That was the start of the Mexican revolution.

Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle that took place 5 May, 1862, more than 50 years later. (Mexico had already been “free” for decades at the time the battle of Cinco de Mayo occured.) You might think that the battle on Cinco de Mayo would be against the Spanish, the country that colonized Mexico. Nope. It was against the French. And the battle was actually the fault of the United States of America.

In 1862, the American Civil War was in full swing. The North imposed a blockade on the Southern states. This made sense. They didn’t want the South to be able to sell goods to other countries and they certainly didn’t want other countries able to get goods and arms to the Confederacy.

Interesting trivia point. The United States Government never officially recognized the Confederate States of America as a separate country. The official policy was always that the states were still part of the USA, but were in a state of rebellion. However, it is literally impossible to blockade yourself. So, when the Union imposed a blockade on the Souther states, it was a de facto recognition of the South as a separate country.

Then, as now, pretty much no one cared about the difference between a blockade of rebellious states and a de facto recognition of the CSA as a nation.

Okay, back to Cinco de Mayo. The blockade kept cotton from getting to France. After a couple of years, the French decided to take matters into their own hands. They decided to establish a base in the Americas that they could use to both support the Confederacy and they could use to get cotton out of the South.

To accomplish this task, they put together an army of 6000 French troops and landed them in Mexico. They neglected to ask the Mexican government for its opinion on the issue. In fact, they kind of put their own leader in place and forced the Mexican government to flee. The Mexicans naturally viewed an invading force of 6000 non-Mexicans as a cause of concern.

The Mexicans quickly assembled a loose collection of 2000 troops under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza and rushed them to a little town called Puebla de Los Angeles (House of The Angels), a small town in east-central Mexico.

Six thousand French infantry supported by heavy artillary against 2000 Mexican irregulars. They met on 5 May, 1862. The battle lasted all day. The French assaulting the entrenched positions of the Mexicans.

When the dust cleared at the end of the day, General Zaragoza had lost less than 100 men. His soldiers had inflicted over five times that many casualties on the attacking French.

It would take another 5 years before the Mexican government was able to fully drive out the French. But, the battle of Puebla was an important victory for the Mexican army and the Mexican people. Much like the battle of Bunker Hill during the American revolution showed that the Americans were able to compete with the best the British had to offer, the battle of Puebla inspired similar pride and confidence in the Mexican nation.

Okay, so that’s the history. A big deal right? Not so much. The battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17, 1775. How many people do you know that celebrate it? My ancestors fought at Bunker Hill and I know I don’t celebrate.

In Mexico, 5 May is just another day. A typical Tuesday this year. It’s not a national holiday. There are no parades. Schools and banks don’t close. In fact, outside of the state of Puebla very little notice is taken of it.

Here in Utah, we celebrate July 24. It’s a state holiday commemorating the day in 1847 when the first Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. It’s a big deal in Utah, not so much elsewhere in the United States.

Cinco de Mayo is like that in Mexico.

So, enjoy Cinco de Mayo responsibly. If you drink, find someone else to drive. Don’t wear sombreros, they are just tacky and stereotypical. Enjoy Mexican food and take a day to celebrate our neighbors South of the border. And realize that had General Zaragoza’s ragtag bunch not been successful, it would have been much harder for the good guys to win the American Civil War.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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