Cinco de Mayo will soon be upon us. And, as it is every year, the Fifth of May will be greeted with celebrations of Mexican culture, cuisine, and heritage. It is a day of great ceremony and fanfare — even if it is often misunderstood.
The day, which is more heavily celebrated in the United States than in Mexico itself, is mistaken by many to be the Mexican equivalent of July 4 in our country — but that is not so (Mexico’s actual Independence Day is observed on Sept. 16). What the day actually commemorates is the historic victory over the French at Puebla in 1862.
But let’s not jump ahead.
Prior to that great victory, Mexico had seen a period of tremendous turmoil and internal strife. National pride was at a low ebb, and the national treasury had been depleted by wars against the United States (1846 – ’48) and a civil war between liberal and conservative forces that lasted from 1858 to ’61.
In fact, these wars and their effect on the economy led directly to the conflict with France.
In July of 1861, President Benito Juarez issued a moratorium on payments to foreign nations for two years. The proclamation was met with anger by Britain, Spain, and France — who held large notes with Mexico. The three European powers sent naval warships and troops to enforce the debt obligations. Spain and Britain were able to negotiate settlements and left in peace, but the French under Napoleon III decided to press the issue. Their hope was not only to secure the money owed them, but also to establish a French foothold in the Americas and press their influence throughout the region.
Early in the campaign, the French took Veracruz and forced the government of Benito Juarez to retreat. But, as they marched toward Mexico City with 8,000 well-armed soldiers, they were met by group of militiamen led by General Ignacio Zaragoza. While the Mexican force was roughly half the size, and not nearly as well armed, they routed the French and drove them from the country — with estimates of casualties being 10:1 French to Mexican.
The victory was a huge boost to Mexican pride and helped unify the nation, which had lingering wounds from its civil war of the previous years.
But, it also was short-lived. The great general succumbed to Typhoid Fever in September of 1862, and the French returned the following year and enlisted the support of Conservative Party monarchists hostile to the government of Juarez. With the strength of 30,000 troops they established the Second Mexican Empire, ruled by pro-France Austrian Archduke Maximilian 1 from 1863 – 1867.
The Mexican Army eventually retook Mexico City in June of 1867, executing Maximilian and his generals. The government of Benito Juarez was reestablished and Mexico was once again free of foreign rule.
Now, onto the Party!
While Cinco de Mayo is lightly celebrated in Mexico (a handful of military parades and battle reenactments are held, particularly around Puebla), it is a force of nature in the United States — and also recognized around the globe. And, even though many may mistake the historical roots of the day, all can enjoy a celebration of Mexican cuisine and heritage. The “breakout” of the holiday began in the 1950s and 1960s in California, and then gained steam when beer and wine distributors helped promote it in the 1980s. Today, more than 150 American cities hold Mexican parades and celebrations on May 5, and the sale of beer rivals that of Super Bowl Sunday. Internationally, the day is marked by a skydiving festival in Vancouver, an Air Guitar competition in the Cayman Islands, and Mexican-themed parties in Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia, Capetown, South Africa, Lagos, Nigeria, and Japan. Even the French have shown they are not sore losers, as Paris has a day of parties.
At Condesa, we believe the best way to celebrate is to gather with family and friends and enjoy all things Mexican — and, there is no better place to do that than right here, with us!