PICKENS COUNTY — Time to break out the margaritas and crank the mariachi music ya’ll, because it’s Cinco de Mayo, Mexico’s “Fourth of July!” Right?
No. Not Even close …
Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo (or the fifth of May), is nothing more than a holiday that celebrates the date of the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War.
In fact, it’s a relatively minor holiday in Mexico and — unless you happen to live in the state of Puebla — goes largely unobserved.
A little backstory …
In 1861, Benito Juárez — a lawyer and member of the indigenous Zapotec tribe — was elected president of Mexico. This was a big deal because at the time, the country was in financial ruin after years of internal strife. The new president was forced to default on the county’s debt payments to European governments.
That didn’t go over very well “across the pond” and in response, France, England and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz, Mexico, demanding repayment.
While England and Spain negotiated with Mexico (and withdrew their forces), France decided to get all frisky and use the opportunity to carve out an empire of Mexican territory.
A well-armed French fleet stormed Veracruz, landing a large force of troops and driving President Juárez and his government into retreat.
The French were certain the war would be easily won and 6,000 French troops under General Charles Latrille de Lorencez set out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles — a small town in east-central Mexico.
But President Juárez had no intention of losing his country to the French.
From his new headquarters in the North, Juárez rounded up a ragtag force of 2,000 loyal men and sent them to Puebla.
The vastly outnumbered (and poorly supplied) Mexicans were led by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza. They fortified the town and prepared for the French attack.
On May 5, 1862, the French General Lorencez gathered his army and led the assault on Puebla.
The battle lasted from daybreak to early evening and when the French finally retreated they had lost nearly 500 soldiers.
Fewer than 100 Mexicans had been killed in the clash.
Although the battle wasn’t a major strategic win in the overall war, Zaragoza’s success at the Battle of Puebla on May 5 represented a great symbolic victory for the Mexican government and it had a bolstering effect with the resistance movement.
Five years later, in 1867, France gave up and finally withdrew.
The same year, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, who had been installed as emperor of Mexico in 1864 by Napoleon, was captured and executed by Juárez’s forces.
Puebla de Los Angeles was renamed for General Zaragoza, who sadly died of typhoid fever just months after his historic win.
Wait, so Cinco de Mayo isn’t a celebration of Mexican independence?
Nope — that’s September 16.
Within Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is primarily observed in the state of Puebla, where Zaragoza’s unlikely victory occurred, although other parts of the country also take part in the celebration. Traditions include military parades, recreations of the Battle of Puebla and other festive events.
For many Mexicans, however, May 5 is just a day like any other.
Reach Kasie Strickland at 864-855-0355.