Cinco de Mayo, or “the Fifth of May” is more than an excuse to corral one’s closest friends for a night of barhopping and alcoholic endurance, but the mark of Mexico’s strength and astounding ability to persevere against all odds. Often confused for Mexico’s Day of Independence, the holiday actually represents the nation’s first victory against the invading French forces at the start of the Franco-Mexican War in 1862.
Known as The Battle of Puebla, this first act of combat between the French and Mexican armies on May 5th, 1862 echoed the ideology of the revolutionaries who fought for independence and social reform in the earlier part of the 1800s against the Spaniards. For the people of México, this attack at Puebla symbolized their stance in refusing to passively hand the nation over to the French ruler, Napoleon the Third, or any other foreign nation.
The Franco-Mexican War lasted approximately seven years, from the initial invasion in late 1861 until 1867, after the crowned Emperor, Maximilan the First was overthrown. Napoleon III justified France’s intended colonization of México because of the nations debt following the Mexican-American War (1846-1847), and the Mexican Civil War or La Guerra de Reforma (1857-1861).
The army led by General Ignacio Zaragoza held their ground against the French in the David-and-Goliath styled battle that crushed France’s illusion of a swift victory. This victory would not demolish the nations hope, although it would only last until the next year when Napoleon III deployed more troops and General Zaragoza met his untimely death several months after his victory. The Mexican army was then led by his successor, General Jesus Ortega, who was unfortunately forced to surrender in March of 1863. Napoleon III had finally realized his goal of expansion for France, but this vision was short-lived with the ideal of hope still embedded in the hearts of the people.
The ember that made this magnificent defeat of the French possible over 40 years later was the ideology of Priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a revolutionary marked by the Spanish authorities as a rebel. Father Costilla stoked the flame of rebellion in a bold declaration known as, El Grito de Dolores on September 16th, 1810. This phrase translated into English means the “cry of Dolores,” but more comprehensively, it was Father Costilla’s plea to the people to take matters into their own hands and reclaim their freedom from the enemy. Although there is no existing record of the speech, accounts passed down through generations, claim it urged the townspeople to “reclaim the lands stolen from their forefathers.”
Sadly, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla would not live to see the end of the rebellion and México reclaimed freedom from Spain. Stripped of his protection from the Roman Catholic Church and marked as a rebel, Father Costilla was captured by the enemy in Chihuahua, México, on May 21st, 1811. Although accounts of his sentence vary, Father Costilla was detained until his execution on July 30th of the same year.
The beliefs of resistance were carried on by Father Costilla’s comrades José María Morelos y Pacon and Vincente Guerrero, to name a few and many other Mexican’s that believed in the message of freedom, pride and one’s reclaimed rights. The battle against Spanish forces would continue until September 27th, 1821 when México would win its independence. However, it is annually celebrated on September 16th, to acknowledge Father Costilla’s El Grito de Dolores.
From then to now, Cinco de Mayo has morphed and grown into a possibly misunderstood holiday but continues to represent 154 years of pride and culture across Mexican, Chicano, and Mexican-American communities.
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