Sure, sure, everybody knows Cinco de Mayo is an excuse to party and enjoy Mexican food and drink. Most folks know it’s not actually Mexican Independence Day, and given the real history it’s not clear how that rumor started.
But how many folks know where Cinco de Mayo went down and why?
In my last post, we left off with the Spanish in control of Mexico City and the surroundings, circa 1542, and that held true for a good long time. It wasn’t until Sept 16, 1810 that a priest named Miguel Hidalgo called upon the Mexican people to revolt, leading to their version of a War for Independence. The Spanish didn’t give up easily, it wasn’t until 1821 when they said the heck with it, you guys are more trouble than you’re worth – especially as they were having serious issues back home.
The battle of Cinco de Mayo didn’t happen for another 40 years, when in 1861 it was the French who were the troublemakers, and it settled nothing. It’s just that the Mexicans won the battle against long odds. These days most of Mexico treats it as just another day.
Except in Puebla, about 60 miles ESE of Mexico City, where the battle occurred.
It wasn’t even the first tiff the Mexicans had with the French.
Just because the Mexicans had won their independence in 1821 didn’t mean everything was all kumbaya. There was much civil disorder as various factions competed for control. Collateral damage was not unknown, and often went uncompensated.
In 1832, a French pastry chef known as Monsieur Remontel complained to the French king that Mexican officers looted his shop. Remontel demanded 60,000 pesos as reparations for the damage, even though his shop was valued at less than 1,000 pesos. This, and complaints from other French nationals affected by the chaos added up over time.
By 1838 prime minister Louis-Mathieu Molé demanded from Mexico the payment of 600,000 pesos in damages. The Mexicans refused and the French sent military, starting the “Pastry War.”
As wars go, this one was pretty small, and they signed a treaty in 1839. As part of this treaty, the Mexican government agreed to pay the 600,000 pesos.
But they never did.
The Mexican engine was still running rough. It wasn’t long after the Pastry War that the Americans had their turn – the Mexican-American war ran from 1846 to 1848. I’ll talk about that one in a separate post. Then, from 1858 to 1860 the Mexicans had a civil war, aka the Reform War. This had been festering for a long while, a conflict between the liberals who wanted to separate church and state and educate the masses, and the Catholic church and its supporters that saw a threat to their power. By 1861, Mexico had accumulated a lot of foreign debt they couldn’t afford, and Mexican President Benito Benito Juárez placed a moratorium on foreign debt payments.
France, the United Kingdom, and Spain agreed to the Convention of London, a joint effort to ensure that debt repayments from Mexico would be forthcoming. But upon landing their troops in 1861, the Brits and Spanish discovered the French had an ulterior motive; they wanted to take over the country. Still pissed about the pastries, I guess. Spain and Britain weren’t cool with this, they negotiated separate treaties with Mexico and withdrew. The French went ahead with their invasion, and for a time established the Second Mexican Empire (1862–1867).
Cinco de Mayo (1862) was just one battle in this big picture. The Mexicans won against great odds, and it galvanized the resistance, but in time France captured Puebla anyway.
While some of the battle occurred at the fort, much of it happened on higher ground on the hill above the fort.
Mexican forces kept at it and turned the tide. By 1867 they’d recaptured the country and the French Emperor Maximilian I, executing the emperor.
These days, Puebla is an industrial town, dominated by the car industry. It’s the home of the world’s largest Volkswagen factory outside of Germany, and contains an Audi plant that may be the most technologically advanced car factory in the western hemisphere. In addition, many suppliers to these factories are open for business in Puebla.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t any culture.
Is it fair to say art schools/museums and shopping count as culture?
Puebla is well known for its mole poblano, a rich, dark, complex, labor intensive sauce with many ingredients, but primarily featuring chilies, chocolate, and sugar. I had it with chicken, and can attest to its five-star yum factor.
So, if Cinco de Mayo is a nothing burger outside of Puebla, why is it such a big deal in the United States?
Fact is, it’s always been a USA thing. It started in California the year after the battle, while the war with France was still going on. At that time it was both a celebration and a fundraiser to further the cause. But Cinco de Mayo didn’t hit the big time until the 1980s, when some advertising genius for a booze company thought the date would be a good excuse for a party, with lots of alcohol. Since then, the beer, wine, and tequila companies have hyped it big time, and beer sales rival those of the Super Bowl.
Well, today is Cinco de Mayo and I’ve had a burrito (also an item not generally found in Mexico), I guess it’s time for a beer…