By Ricardo Flores Angel, Newhall Community Contributor
My family never celebrated Cinco de Mayo growing up. We did celebrate Mexican Independence Day which is in September, but not Cinco de Mayo. I first heard about the holiday when I was about 15 from a friend at school. My father said it wasn’t celebrated much where he was from near Mexico City, but was popular along the border and in the U.S. Of course, now it is celebrated all over Mexico with parades and reenactments.
The Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Battle of Puebla, a great Mexican victory over the French Army in 1862. The French had invaded Mexico to set it up as part of their colonial empire. Mexico was bankrupt and could not repay its debts to France and many other foreign governments. A coalition of England, France and Spain invaded Mexico hoping to enforce repayment.
England and Spain left after reaching a settlement with Mexico and becoming aware that France intended to set up Mexico as part of its own empire. At that time the conservative party had taken a majority in the Mexican government and was in favor of returning to some form of monarchy. This was unacceptable to the liberal party. Benito Juarez, the governor of Oaxaca, formed his own government with himself as president. The battle at Puebla showed the world that Mexico would resist the French Intervention.
President Benito Juarez declared the Cinco de Mayo a holiday shortly after the victory. Unfortunately, France sent more troops and set up the Austrian Arch Duke Maximillian as the Emperor of Mexico. Maximillian brought architects from Europe to design and build Chapultapec Castle as his residence. The beautiful castle is still a tourist attraction and museum.
President Lincoln was favorable to President Juarez and his liberal government but could only help with money and weapons. The U.S. was not able to send troops to help since they were involved in their own Civil War. The French would stay until 1866 after the U.S. Civil War ended and the U.S. Navy threatened a blockade of Mexican ports. President Juarez entered Mexico City shortly after, and the Emperor was executed. Benito Juarez was a Zapotec Indian and the only Native American to ever hold the office of President.
The celebration of the Cinco de Mayo continues in the U.S. as a fun way of preserving and teaching Mexican culture and cuisine. Interestingly, Mexican sauces and pastries are said to have been influenced greatly by the French. The Mexican folk dresses exhibit a strong French influence. Also, the word mariachi, a type of Mexican folk music, is said to have been given by the French. My aunts and uncles organized and participated in Folklorico dances and performances growing up in Santa Barbara, California. This also became a pathway to political involvement during the Chicano Movement which began in the Sixties.