Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cinco de Mayo

That phrase has reverberated in my head long enough—year after year, decade after decade—without actually producing anything more than the sound—and the vague notion of a national holiday south of the border. Well, in a way. And in a way not. But it’s so easy, nowadays, to discover where that sound first arose, and today I decided to find out. I did and, in a way, I had to laugh. From the ridiculous we rise to the sublime. Cinco de Mayo commemorates, in a manner of speaking, an attempt to collect a debt that more or less succeeded and also, more or less, failed. The story (slightly edited) is told here by Wikipedia (of which volunteer encyclopedia, by the way, I am a card-carrying supporter):

In 1861, Benito Juárez stopped making interest payments to countries to which Mexico owed money. In response, France attacked Mexico to force payment of this debt. France decided that it would try to take over and occupy Mexico. France was successful at first in its invasion; however, on May 5, 1862, at the city of Puebla, Mexican forces were able to defeat an attack by the larger French army. In the Battle of Puebla, the Mexicans were led by General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín. Although the Mexican army was victorious over the French at Puebla, the victory only delayed the French advance on Mexico City. A year later, the French occupied Mexico. The French occupying forces placed Emperor Maximilian I on the throne of Mexico in 1864. The French, under pressure from the United States, eventually withdrew in 1866-1867. President Benito Juárez deposed and executed Maximilian five years after the Battle of Puebla.
Money, debt, imperial designs. The recurrent upsurge of liberation movements, the protection of spheres of influence, an occasion of Latin and North American cooperation mostly remembered in the United States— all this produced an unofficial holiday that seems to be observed in the Mexican state of Puebla and here. Interesting and strange. Well, now I know. But the reverberation remains untouched. A great sound that, Cinco de Mayo.

Added on Seis de Mayo:

For those who’ve read the comments to this post and would like to know more about Goliad, General Zaragoza, his family history, and the nature of the commemoration as experienced in Texas, I would suggest a visit to this fascinating site offered by the Seguin Family Historical Society.


  1. Never knew the origin of this festival. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  2. It's a curious holiday, since it's a Mexican holiday that is almost wholly celebrated in the United States -- the only place in Mexico that does much to celebrate it is Puebla.

    One of the reasons why it's celebrated in the United States is that Zaragoza was born in Texas -- Goliad, to be precise. At the time, of course, Texas was part of Mexico, but Goliad kept celebrating its connection with the day long after. I've never been, but I've heard that Goliad's Cinco de Mayo celebration is immense these days.

  3. Thank for the thanks, Brigitte, and thanks to you, Brandon, for the rather enlightening expansion re the U.S. footprint of this festival. For the hometown folks, of course, the victor of the Battle of Puebla would be a big figure indeed!

  4. Very interesting, the story of why Cinco de Mayo as well as the greater attention it gets here than in Mexico. Like you say, it has such a nice ring to it.