This Day in History 5/5: The Battle of Puebla and “Cinco de Mayo”

Let’s be perfectly clear, once and for all.

Cinco de Mayo is NOT Mexico’s independence day.  That would be September 16, the day Mexico declared its independence from Spain.

And it was not an invention Corona and Jose Cuervo, either…despite what the marketing at happy hour tells you.

In 1861, Benito Juarez, president of Mexico, stopped all interest payments to Mexican loans from European countries.  Most countries wished to occupy the port of Veracruz until the debt was paid.  The French, however, tried their hand at occupation.

A 6,000 strong French army reached the town of Puebla, near Mexico City, in 1862.  They were the cream of France’s military, including Chasseurs d’Afrique (Hunters of Africa), feared colonial troops, Zouaves, and the French Foreign Legion.  The Mexican army totaled 4,500-4,600, mostly veterans of the Reform Wars, a civil war that swept through Mexico a decade earlier.  Though not exactly the ragtag army of legend, the Mexicans were perceived as outmatched.

Yet the French made a grave miscalculation.  They thought the local population would be friendly to the French invaders, since they were on the wrong side of the Reform Wars.  Those old animosities didn’t matter anymore.  After wasting their ammunition and a bad turn in the weather, the French were beaten back by the solid defense of the Mexican veterans. 

462 French soldiers died, with over 300 wounded and 8 taken prisoner.  The Mexicans lost only 83, with 131 wounded.  It would be the last time a European army would formally (emphasis on formally) attack a country in the Western Hemisphere.

Suprisingly, even though Benito Juarez declared a national holiday for May 5, it is not considered a federal holiday in Mexico today.  On this side of the border, Cinco de Mayo has degenerated further, from a celebration of Mexican culture to an excuse to get sloshed on bad margaritas and buckets of Corona.

So tonight, as you tie one on with your umpteenth tequila shot, remember why we celebrate today.  The video attached, while a little crude, gives most of the important details.

The Epilogue of the Cuba Chronicles will return next time.

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