Happy Cinco De Mayo!
While the Americans were busy fighting each other during the Civil War, south of the Rio Grande (called the Rio Bravo in Mexico) their neighbors were engaged in a fateful struggle of their own.
Ridden with debt, the government of Mexico had suspended interest payments on foreign loans and in consequence faced hostile action from three of its creditors, England, Spain and France. The former two withdrew after negotiations, but Napoleon III of France, interested in empire expansion and wishing to install the Austrian Archduke Maximilian of Hapsburg and his wife Carlota as monarchs of Mexico, chose to fight.
In an unexpected victory, the Mexican militia under Ignacio Zaragoza defeated the larger, more modern and better equipped French forces at Puebla, southwest of Mexico City. The French cavalry was lured away and slaughtered by Mexican horsemen led by Porfirio Diaz, and the infantrymen were beset by adversities almost biblical in nature: a thunderstorm brought deep mud for them to slog through, and machete-wielding locals sent stampeding cattle into their path.
After their defeat at Battala de Puebla the French sent reinforcements and conquered the capital; it took Mexico five more years to rid itself of the Austrian usurper (by the end, it was receiving assistance from the US, where the Civil War had ended).
Some suggest that the point of France’s attempted Mexican expansion was to rein in the US, limit its reach and counter the Monroe Doctrine, which said “America for the Americans.” It is possible that by thwarting Napoleon III’s plans and keeping him militarily occupied down south, the Mexican resistance prevented French aid from going to the Confederate rebels, thus altering the course of the Civil War.
Be that as it may, the day is almost celebrated more in the US – especially in the Southwest and other places with a large Mexican-American population – than in Mexico, where it’s big news only in and around Puebla, the site of the battle. Puebla was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the hero of the day, who was born in Texas before it was ceded to the US in the wake of the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.
Today, over 25 million people of Mexican ancestry live in the United States, and bilateral trade amounts to nearly $250 billion a year. Early in his presidency, George W. Bush said, “The United States has no more important relationship in the world than with Mexico.”
Keep in mind:
Cinco de Mayo is not the Mexican day of independence. That day was 50 years earlier, on September 16, 1810, when Mexico declared itself independent of Spain.