COMMENTARY | Growing up on the Mexican border in El Paso, Texas, Cinco de Mayo was one of the biggest holidays in La Ciudad Juarez. Relatives back East knew little about it. But now, with the influx of Hispanics, more people are becoming aware of the holiday and its importance.
Even our small West Georgian college town is having a big party downtown to commemorate the holiday. And you can't get a table at one of the town's three Mexican restaurants without a reservation.
More folks may be aware of the date, but not some of the details. Hopefully, this column will cover these from someone who studied the subject in school growing up.
Myth 1: The Mexicans Defeated The Spanish.
Actually, the Mexicans received their independence from Spain on Sept. 16, 1821. Before then, Indio priests like Miguel Hidalgo and Jose Maria Morelos led a series of unsuccessful rebellions. Eventually, the conservative elite led by Agustin de Iturbide made a formal declaration of independence.
Maybe that's why there was little interest in Sept. 16 celebrations in Mexico when I was growing up, as Mexico switched from Spanish oppression to local oppression. Cinco de Mayo was more exciting, as it led to a victory over the French, who sought to control Mexico.
Myth 2: Cinco de Mayo was the final victory over the French.
Cinco de Mayo is more akin to America's Fourth of July than anything. The Mexican repelled French attacks upon Puebla in 1862. They didn't prevent France from using its forces to conquer Mexico. But the Puebla Battle showed that France could be defeated. Eventually that happened, after as Emperor Maximilian, his Austrian troops, and Mexican conservative elite were defeated by former President Benito Juarez and his troops five years after Cinco de Mayo, after French soldiers retired from the campaign.
It's similar to July 4, 1776, in that America didn't defeat Great Britain on that date. In fact, 1776 produced a lot of American defeats until Christmas. But the Fourth of July and Cinco de Mayo represent the beginning of the end for colonizers.
Myth 3: America played little role in Cinco de Mayo
America protested the French and Austrian incursion into Mexico, citing the Monroe Doctrine, designed to stop the recolonization of Latin America. But there was little the United States could do about it, as the country was engulfed in a Civil War. Lincoln back Juarez, while the Confederate States of America was more sympathetic to Emperor Maximilian's regime.
Starting in 1865, the United States used considerable leverage to force Napoleon III to abandon Mexico. At the same time, they allowed Juarez and his supporters to arm themselves heavily with Civil War surplus. Such efforts contributed heavily to Mexico's victory.
Myth 4: Cinco de Mayo isn't really a Mexican Holiday
You've probably heard this argument: Mexico doesn't really celebrate Cinco de Mayo. It's just an excuse for Americans to drink beer. Such arguments are ventured by a combination of Mexican conservative elite, as most of the heroes were Indios and Mestizos, the poorer people. It's also a fad theory by revisionists eager to discredit a holiday that Americans have begun to embrace.
But Cinco de Mayo was hugely celebrated in Mexico growing up. Many statues and names of cities and streets and bridges are for the heroes of Cinco de Mayo, not conservative dictators like Iturbide. So enjoy the holiday that brings both countries closer together.