Cinco De Mayo

Sunday, May, 5th, is Cinco de Mayo, a minor holiday in Mexico, but one heartily celebrated in the United States.  In fact, celebrating Cinco de Mayo actually began in California and was commemorated for quite a while here before it was observed in Mexico.

I think I can honestly say, that many celebrants in America have no idea what they are celebrating, so this is a good time to brush up on history.  Do you know the significance of Cinco de Mayo? 

No, it is not Mexican Independence Day, that is the 16th of September and commemorates the start of war against Spanish rule in 1810. And no, it’s not about margaritas and Mexican food either.  Literally “the Fifth of May,” Cinco de Mayo commemorates the out numbered Mexican army’s unlikely victory over elite French military forces at the Battle of Puebla on May, 5th, 1862. 

The French?  Yep.  While the United States was embroiled with the Civil War, France invaded Mexico and installed a puppet government lead by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria as the Emperor of Mexico.  You are probably wondering, well how did the French take over Mexico? During the 1860s, America was not in any position to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, which is a bit of American history worthy of writing about another time. 

Cinco de Mayo has its roots in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the Mexican War of Reform in 1858, which was between liberal and conservative factions in Mexico.  The liberals ultimately won and Benito Juárez was elected president.

Wars are expensive business. To finance these wars, the Mexican government borrowed heavily from England, Spain and France.  The conflicts emptied Mexico’s treasury and Mexico owed tens of millions of dollars to its foreign debtors. In 1861, newly elected President Juarez suspended payment of all foreign debt for two years, a move that prompted an immediate backlash from Spain, France and Great Britain. They sent naval forces to Mexico and seized the port of Veracruz and demanded the Mexico make good on its debts. The Europeans had intended to seize the customs payments from imported goods in exchange for Mexico’s debts.  After a lot of diplomatic wrangling, Spain and Great Britain negotiated a settlement with Juarez and withdrew their forces.  

Ah, but that left the French, at the time ruled by Napoleon III, who had had his eye on Mexico for a while: France had a silver shortage due to the US Civil War forcing them to buy cotton from India instead of the America’s southern states for their vital textile industries and India demanded payment in silver.  Mexico had some of the richest silver deposits in the world.

Several European governments viewed America’s rate of expansion and growing international power as threatening.  While the United States was in the midst of the Civil War, the Confederate South was also trying very hard to persuade several European governments to become its allies. 

Napoleon figured if he could get his hands on Mexico, it could become the first colony in a new French stronghold in North America.  The on going Civil War prevented American from standing in Napoleon’s way. Even better, with a French government installed in Mexico City, Napoleon could provide guns to the Confederacy in exchange for Southern cotton.

If France was successful in seizing Mexico, and allied itself to the Confederates, it might result in a divided the United States, which would be less powerful and less threatening to other nations.  This was a real and tantalizing option to Napoleon.

Late in 1861, the French landed 6,000 troops under General Charles Latrille de Lorencez.  Certain that victory would come swiftly, the French marched from Veracruz intent on capturing Mexico City. The invasion forced President Juárez and his government to retreat to northern Mexico.    

Juarez rounded up a ragtag force of loyal Mexican citizens and sent them to the town of Puebla de Los Angeles directly in the path of the French route to Mexico City.  Led by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza, about 4,000 Mexican militia fortified the town and prepared for the French assault. Most of Zaragoza’s men were farmers armed with antiquated muskets, machetes and farm implements. 

In 1862, the French had one of the best armies in the world. For nearly 50 years, French forces had not suffered a defeat.  Arriving at Puebla on May 4th, the French had more men and firepower, including long-range rifles that put the Mexicans’ creaky muskets to shame. General Lorencez was so overconfident, he didn’t even bother to properly prepare his artillery for battle. 

On the morning of May 5th, the French tried to intimidate the Mexicans with screeching bugle calls and bayonet maneuvers. Showing his contempt for the Mexican defenders, General Lorencez ordered his troops to attack the middle of General Zaragoza’s ramparts. The French cavalry galloped through ditches, over adobe ruins and up the slope of Guadalupe Hill. The Mexican militia stood its ground and inflicted many casualties, sending the French cavalry reeling back from the town.  The battle lasted from daybreak to early evening, the French lost nearly 500 soldiers, while the Mexican defenders lost less than 100.  Lorencez and the French forces fled back to Veracruz to lick their wounds and wouldn’t return to take Puebla until a full year later in May 1863.

The victory represented a significant boost in morale for the Mexican people.  However, the victory, was short-lived.  One year later, in 1863, the French landed 30,000 more troops, defeated the Mexican army, captured Mexico City, and installed Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as Emperor Maximilian I, ruler of Mexico.  However, France’s Mexican Empire was fated to be short lived.    

Some contend that the year-long delay of the French invasion gave Abraham Lincoln’s generals just enough time to win decisive Union victories before Napoleon could provide upgraded artillery and munitions to the Confederacy.

By the time the French occupied Mexico City in June 1863, the battle of Vicksburg was already underway and the Battle of Gettysburg was about to begin.  Union victories the would signal the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. Even if French had been able to start supplying weapons to the South by mid-1863, it would have made very little difference in the outcome of the Civil War.

When the American Civil War ended the United States supported Juarez’s efforts to expel the French.  Napoleon III, facing tenacious Mexican guerrilla resistance and potentially a serious conflict with the United States, withdrew the French forces from Mexico. The Mexicans recaptured Mexico City, Maximilian was apprehended and executed.  

On June, 5th, 1867, Benito Juarez reentered Mexico City, which was significant because since the ousting of the French, no country in the Americas has since been invaded by any European nation.

Although not a major strategic victory in the overall war against the French, Zaragoza’s victory at Puebla galvanized Mexican resistance to the French.  Puebla de Los Angeles, the site of Zaragoza’s historic victory, was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the general.

The first spontaneous celebration of Cinco de Mayo occurred in Columbia, California, three weeks after the Battle of Puebla, after the San Francisco-based La Voz de Méjico newspaper sent copies of its May 27 edition that relayed the news of the unlikely victory over the better-equipped French.

The article stated the Gold Rush was a time of great ethnic diversity for many Mother Lode towns, as prospectors and miners looking to stake out their fortunes poured into the area by the tens of thousands from places like Mexico, Central America and South America.

California Latinos were ardent Union supporters. When their home countries won independence from Spain, they had unilaterally abolished slavery and established citizenship for non-whites. Living in California, a free state, they saw the pro-slavery Confederacy as an existential threat. When reports reached Los Angeles of Zaragoza’s victory against the French, Latinos made the Civil War connection immediately.

Latinos gathered in Juntas Patrióticas (“Patriotic Assemblies”) to celebrate both the surprise victory at Puebla and what it meant for the Union cause. On Cinco de Mayo, there were parades in the streets carrying the Mexican and American flags.  There were speeches extolling the heroism of Zaragoza and his outgunned troops and denouncing the pro-slavery Confederates who would take away their rights.

By the first anniversary of its first spontaneous celebration in Columbia, the commemoration of the victory of the forces of freedom and democracy on Cinco de Mayo became institutionalized up and down California, and has been celebrated every year since.

In California, the tradition of celebrating Cinco de Mayo has continued without interruption since 1862, although the original reason and the history have gotten lost.  We all love a good party in California, so it is nice to know it began here. For many years it was virtually ignored in Mexico.  Today, Cinco de Mayo is a big deal in Puebla, but it is still a relatively minor holiday in Mexico. For most of Mexico, May, 5th is a day like any other: It is not a federal holiday, so offices, banks and stores remain open. 

In the United States Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage.  As Californians, we have long traditions and ties with Mexico dating back to the days of the Californios.  In fact, California’s first Constitution stated that English and Spanish were the “official” languages of the State.  All government publications were printed in both languages.  For those of us who live in the Santa Ynez Valley, reminders of those ties and traditions are all around us.  Cinco de Mayo is a good time to remember our shared heritage.

I have one short historical aside the relates to Emperor Maximillian’s court in Mexico. It is a great illustration of how quirky history can be and how people can have many different careers during their lives. 

Mary Katherine Haroney was born Hungary on November 7, 1850.  She was highly educated, literate, and spoke several languages, including Hungarian, French, Spanish, and English. Kate was the daughter of a physician who was appointed as the personal surgeon of Mexico’s Emperor, Maximillian, in 1862. With the appointment, the family left Hungary for Mexico, but in 1865 Maximillian’s rule crumbled. The Haroney family fled the country and settled in Davenport, Iowa.

On March 26, 1865, when Kate was just fourteen years old, her mother died and just two months later, her father passed away too. Kate and the rest of the children were placed in foster homes.  Kate ended up under the supervision of a man named Otto Schmidt. When Schmidt tried to rape Kate, she reportedly hit him with an ax handle and fled.

Like the men who routinely populate frontier tales, Kate went west to reinvent herself. Independent, fearless, and comfortable holding a pistol, she racked up adventuresl.

Kate drifted to Dodge City where she found work in a bawdy house with none other than Bessie Earp, Virgil Earp’s common law “wife.” She next made their way south to Fort Griffin, Texas.  

It was here where Kate, now known as Big Nose Kate made the most significant connection of her life, a dentist with tuberculosis and a temper named John Henry “Doc” Holliday.  Big Nose Kate met Doc Holliday in a place appropriate for two frontier legends, a saloon. They crossed paths at John Shanssey’s Saloon in Fort Griffin, Texas, around 1877.

Kate liked Holliday’s reckless sophistication. Holliday was drawn to Kate’s voluptuous beauty, intellect, and independence. Plus, both had — for better and for worse — fiery tempers. Over the years they fought, split, reunited, perhaps got married, and fought some more.

But they made a good couple in the quick-trigger days of the Wild West, nonetheless. When Holliday was arrested in Fort Griffin during a poker game — possibly for stabbing a cheat in the stomach and possibly for drinking liquor which was prohibited while gambling — Kate rose to the occasion.

Stealthily lighting a fire in town, Kate quietly watched as people rushed to contain it. Then, she went to the hotel where Holliday was being held, threatened his guards with two pistols, and spirited him to freedom.

Riding on stolen horses, they made their way to Dodge City and promised each other to give up prostitution and gambling — promises that neither kept for long.

But by the time the dentist died of tuberculosis at the age of 36 in 1887 in Colorado, she had returned to his side. Kate’s story, however, didn’t end there.  Kate drifted to Cochise, Arizona, where she worked as a housekeeper at the Cochise Hotel. 

When Kate was an old woman, with a glimmer of her former frontier mischief, Kate applied to Arizona’s Pioneers Home in Prescott, a caring facility, massaging the truth to ensure her admission. Kate claimed she was born in Iowa. And when she listed her marriages, she included Doc Holliday — though they likely had a common-law marriage. Kate was, nevertheless, accepted. She spent the rest of her life at the Pioneers Home before her death on Nov. 2, 1940, five days before her 90th birthday.

Kate is a good example of the old adage, you never know where life will lead you.