Thursday, March 12, 2015

Cinco De Mayo and the Causes of French-Mexican War

Battle of Puebla
The United States celebrates Cinco de Mayo more than the Mexicans. The origins of the event, however, marked a victory of rag-tag Mexican army against a more powerful, well trained and well-armed French army on May 5, 1862. It became known as celebration for the victory of the oppressed against the oppressors. However, as time went by, the celebration died down in Mexico, nevertheless, its memory remained in many Mexicans, especially those who immigrated to the United States where it turned to a celebration one own culture.

Cinco de Mayo’s beginnings originated in a time of great confusion in Mexican history. In the late 1850’s and to the 1860’s Mexico suffered years of civil war, known as War of Reform, between rivaling political factions – the Liberals against the Conservatives. Eventually, in 1861, the Liberal defeated the Conservatives in the battlefield and marched triumphantly to the capital city of Mexico City. The Liberal President Benito Juarez then assumed the leadership of the country. However, the victory came with a high cost. Years of internal strife brought the economy on its knees. Most of the infrastructure, roads and bridges, and mills for processing agricultural goods laid in ruins. More than that, peace and order throughout the country remained absent as banditry became rampant across the roads of Mexico. The economy suffered terribly because of the War of Reform.

President Juarez faced a tough challenge in front of him. Because of the terrible condition that the Mexico stood, Juarez had to default on its foreign loans. The foreign debt of Mexico stood at millions of dollars owed to the countries of France, Spain, and Britain. During the war, both the conservatives and the liberal borrowed heavily from the Europeans to fund their respective war efforts. After the Liberals won, the Europeans wanted payment for the outstanding debt of the Liberals and the Conservatives. With an economy in ruins and the government coffers empty, Juarez announced a two year moratorium on foreign debt payments in 1861. However, the Congress had a more radical approach – completely not paying the debts.

When the countries of France, Spain, and Britain heard the news about Mexico defaulting on their debt obligations, they became even furious. For years, they had protested to Mexico against the death and injury of many foreigners in Mexico. In addition, many properties of foreigners had been taken or damaged by Mexican rampaging during the War of Reform and during the high rate of banditry across the country. For the Europeans, the moratorium of debts was the last straw.

In 1862, the three countries decided to take military actions against Mexico to extract payment. Around 9,000 troops from Spain, France, and Britain occupied the customs house in Veracruz on January of 1862. They hoped to collect payment for the debt by cutting of Mexico’s vital revenue from duties collected in the customs house on its most vibrant and well-known port of Veracruz.

However, France had another agenda in Mexico, a malignant plot to take over Mexico using debt collection as an excuse. After the War of Reform, some Mexican Conservatives escaped to France and sought the help of Emperor Napoleon III. The Conservatives proposed to the Emperor the idea of setting up a monarchy in Mexico and they granted Napoleon III the privilege to choose who will be that Emperor. The Conservatives clearly knocked on to the Emperor’s taste for conquest. Napoleon III wanted to overshadow his relative, the great French general Napoleon Bonaparte. He aimed to create a French Empire across the world that will surpass that of Napoleon Bonaparte. He had already succeeded in establishing colonies in Africa, poised to take over the whole of Indochina, and now he wanted to set up another colony in Mexico in order to build an Empire where the sun never sets. In addition to outdoing his ancestor, he had other reasons for occupying Mexico. For instance, he saw the Mexican people incapable of managing their own country and thus, he must take in order to teach them. A reason well-known as mission civilisatice, the French version of America’s manifest destiny. He also saw himself as the agent of the Catholic Church, asking favor from the Pope himself, to grant him blessing to impose once again the power of the Church in Mexico, which saw conflict with the ruling Liberals.  Other reasons included economic benefits, such as expanding market for French made goods and new sources for raw materials needed by French industries.

More importantly, Napoleon III saw a window where France could re-established absolute monarchies in Republican Americas. The United States that announced the Monroe Doctrine in the 1820’s pledged that will not allow European incursion or expansion in the Americas. However, in the 1860’s the United States had suffered a Civil War that turned its military to concentrate in home than in abroad. Napoleon wanted to exploit the situation to establish his imperial agenda.

In the early 1862, European forces blockaded the port of Veracruz. However, when the Spaniards and the British discovered that France wanted more than just debt payment, they decided to pull out their troops in protest. They did not wanted to become a part or embroiled in France’s imperial ambitions.

When the two other European countries withdrew, France then began the invasion of Mexico. With 6,500 French troops under General Charles Latrille de Lorencez, they began their march towards the Mexican capital city of Mexico City and set up the monarchy of Maximilian and his wife Charlotte (Napoleon’s choice as Emperor of Mexico). They expected the invasion to be short. Conservatives who spoke to Napoleon fed him information that once French forces landed the Mexican people will rise up against President Juarez’s government. Also, they knew that the Mexican army lack proper weapons, weak in numbers, and short in discipline and skills. En route to Mexico City, in May, the French army occupied the town known as the Puebla de Los Angeles.

The Mexicans prepared for the defense of their country. The government began a rapid conscription of men to the army in order to defend their homeland. President Benito Juarez appointed General Ignacio Zaragoza to lead the attack against the French. Zaragoza relied on his fellow commander, Porfirio Diaz, to rally their 2,000 man rag-tag army for battle against one of the most powerful military force in the world.

On May 5, 1862, the Mexican forces prepared themselves to fight the well-armed and well-trained French forces occupying Puebla de Los Angeles. General Zaragoza prayed for the rain to pour heavily in order to make the road muddy and difficult to march with for the French. Then, on that day, French forces, confident over an easy victory began their march towards Mexico City. However, their overconfidence became their undoing. Marching in single file, they opened themselves for ambush by Mexican forces. The Mexicans on the other hand exploited this weakness. Zaragoza and Diaz ordered an attack on the flanks of the thin formation of French forces. Upon doing so, they surprised the French when they launched their attack. The French, shocked by the sudden attack, fell in disarray, causing panic and confusion in the process. After a day of fighting, the French had enough and withdrew from Puebla de Los Angles, suffering around 500 dead. The Mexicans on the other suffered around less than a hundred dead. The Mexican army, however, failed to destroy the French forces because the mud in the field caused by heavy rains that Zaragoza wished materialized.

Although the Battle in Puebla proved to be a short lived victory. In the following year, France returned with a more formidable force to avenge the defeat in Puebla. Napoleon dispatched his veteran soldiers from Algeria to invade Mexico and place Maximillian as Emperor. Eventually, they succeeded and France occupied Mexico until late 1860’s.

Mexico celebrated the victory in Puebla de Los Angeles. They celebrated it as victory over a more powerful European power. The Mexican people then felt a nationalistic fervor and hope that they can defeat a formidable enemy. The day Cinco de Mayo, became a widely celebrated day in Mexico for over a century. However, later on, it died down.

Celebration of Cinco de Mayo only saw revival in the 1960’s and not in Mexico, but in the United States. During that period, Mexican immigrants in the United States began to fight for their identity and rights. They resented the American views that Mexicans should assimilate to their culture and abandon their home culture. In the 1960’s up to the 1970’s, Mexican-Americans began the Chicanismo movement. It became a well-known movement in the states that once owned by Mexico – Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, etc. May 5, 1967, college students from California State University celebrated the Cinco de Mayo. They celebrated invoking the underlining meaning of the celebration as a victory of the oppressed against the oppressors. The students celebrated in order to celebrate Mexican culture and tradition. Mexican music, dance, and culture filled the Cinco de Mayo celebration. In the following years, Cinco de Mayo grew in the size of its celebration and by the 21st century, it became one of the largest celebration in the United States.  It became more known as an American holiday than a Mexican holiday, where it is only celebrated in the state of Puebla.

See also:

Burton, Kirkwood. The History of Mexico. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LC, 2010.

Lynn V. Foster. A Brief History of Mexico. New York, New York: Facts On File, 2010.

Marisela Chavez. "Chicano Movement" on The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Social History. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Peter Garcia. "Cinco de Mayo" on Encyclopedia of Latino Popular Culture v. 1, A-L. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004.

William Beezley. Mexico in World History. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 

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