If you look around today, May 5, 2017, Mexicans are not celebrating much. At best there might be a reunion in military plazas and garrisons for the swearing-in ceremony for those who turned 18 years old to serve for one year as a “conscript” in the Mexican Army. But that’s about it. The much hooted about Cinco de Mayo is anything but a regular day in Mexico.
Yet this coming weekend great celebrations will be held all over the United States (except in the White House, from what I hear) to commemorate the May 5, 1862, Battle of Puebla when the rag tag Mexican Army using repaired junk rifles that the French had used at Waterloo 50 years before defeated the French Army, then famed to be the “number one” in the world.
The question is not about commemoration, but why does it happen in the United States and not in Mexico?
In Mexico, all historians conclude that it was the first time since the nation had been incepted in 1821 that there was a sense of nationality given the enthusiastic and overwhelming response from all the states pertaining then to the “Not United Mexican States,” as generals put aside their difference to conform a united front against the 6,000 strong Légion Etrangère which had decided to lay siege to the city of Puebla in order to gain a solid beach head to conquer the rest of the nation from there.
Antagonizing the French was also important. Up until then Mexicans still lived under the concept that all things European were superior as reflected by the letter sent by General Charles Ferdinand Latrille to French War Minister Alexandre Randon:
“We are so superior to the Mexicans in organization, discipline, race, morality and sensibility refinement that I beg to announce to His Imperial Majesty, Napoleon III that as of this moment and in command of our brave 6,000 soldiers I am already the owner of Mexico.”
Definitely, the commanding officer General Ignacio Zaragoza was pretty much aware of the low class mentality among the different armies at his command.
On the night of May 4, Zaragoza harangued the different groups stemming from eight different states, two groups of mountain peasants and 5,000 regular army soldiers:
“Today thou shall fight with a sacred object in mind; thou will fight for your country and I promise myself that in this present journey thou will conquer an eternal name of recognition. Soldiers, I read victory in your forehead…faith…and…long live national independence. Viva Mexico.”
The one reality Zaragoza also saw in his fighting force that for once they had all stopped being natives of different regions of Mexico to become a national united front.
In those days Mexico was still licking the wounds from the 1847 U.S. invasion — only 13 years before — and surviving as an independent nation was a matter of life or death.
Zaragoza’s “divisions” of “indios” came from Oaxaca, the State of Mexico , San Luis Potosí and Puebla but since they had no fire arms they were placed on the reserve units which proved crucial to the victory. In fact, the battle began at 11:15 a.m. (according to a General Zaragoza telegram to Benito Juárez) with Mexico starting the defense.
At 5 p.m. the Eastern Army (Puebla is east of Mexico City) had held the defense of the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe, when a downpour came down soaking the gun French gun powder and forcing bayonet combat that Zaragoza unleashed the divisions from the states who used two lethal weapons, stones and machetes.
That attack, and the fact that the Zacapoaxtlas besides killing French soldiers would cut their arms off and take bites of flesh, struck terror in the army of General Latrille, who gave up fighting and ran away.
Among the soldiers joining Zaragoza, at least according to a south eastern Texas version of nowadays “Hispanics”, there was a contingent of about 500 cavalry men of Mexican origin who participated invited by Zaragoza, a native son of Bahía Del Espiritu Santo, nowadays Goliad, on the Gulf of Mexico coast. It is said that in 1863, they partied to commemorate the Cinco de Mayo battle and victory and that from then on it spread as a tradition among Mexican Americans. Some Mexican historians don’t buy this story but celebrations are on anyway.
The successful result of the battle, says Mexican composer Sergio Berlioz who wrote a symphony on the Cinco de Mayo Battle, “Marked a before and after in Mexico in terms of national unity. Neither the Revolution nor the Independence managed to unite forces from all walks of life, conservatives nor the rich included, against an enemy.” So says composer Berlioz, one of the many people who affirm that Cinco de Mayo is the day when Mexico became a nation.
As for the celebration in the United States, well, that’s a subject of discussion for next year but in the meantime, open the six pack and pass the nachos.