(Mexican insurgent attacking French soldier, Battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862))

The evolution of Cinco de Mayo, a minor recognition of the Battle of Puebla, into a United States-Latino-Chicano drink-fest is something of a mystery to people in Mexico. On May 5, 1862, an insurgent Mexican army surprisingly and soundly drove impressively equipped and uniformed French invaders out of the city of Puebla. However, in 1862, the attempt to extend Napoleon’s Empire to Mexico was far from over.

I am annoyed by excessive excitement surrounding Cinco de Mayo, but I am annoyed by excessive excitement surrounding anything. However, when I became a Spanish teacher in a small Texas town, I could not escape Cinco frenzy. The school allowed Spanish teachers to have classroom parties for cultural objectives on certain days. “When is Cinco de Mayo anyhow?” the principal asked as we worked out the calendar for a new school year.

High school students will never forgive a teacher who passes up an occasion to bring food to class, so I reluctantly planned a Cinco fiesta for the sake of taquitos and cokes. I dug red, white, and green cut paper, some Mexican flags and a few overworked serapes out of the closet to justify a little feast during otherwise forbidden school hours.

Long before taking that Spanish job, I had lived in Mexico, where Cinco de Mayo is not an official holiday. History teachers mentioned the Battle of Puebla in their classes on that day, television stations projected stock history documentaries, and newspapers published a perfunctory editorial or two from their archives. In Puebla, where the battle took place, there are muted celebrations. Sometimes May 1, Labor Day, which is a holiday in Mexico, and May 5, Mexico’s semi-holiday would come together with a weekend to give a pretext for a puente, a five-day weekend bridge, always welcomed joyfully by teachers and students struggling toward the finish of another school year. That was the extent of excitement about Cinco de Mayo.

Determined that students should at least know that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day, I searched for the only teaching tool that students will possibly pay attention to on party day: a movie. I found one that was both entertaining and enlightening–at least to me and a few adolescent history buffs. Juarez, a 1939 release, featured Bette Davis, big-eyed iconic film star from the early days of cinema, as the beautiful but unfortunate Charlotte of Belgium, who, with her hapless Hapsburg husband, Maximilian of Austria, occupied the imperial throne in Chapultepec Castle from 1864 to 1867. That was when President Benito Juarez ordered the execution by firing squad of Maximilian, who refused to abdicate even in the face of defeat.

You see, that surprising Mexican victory back on May 5, 1862, in the city of Puebla, had been bittersweet. It was followed by a long, hard struggle to drive out the invading French. If, like me, you are a somewhat lazy aficionado of history, a Napoleonic Time Line might be just what you need to better understand what was happening in Mexico while our ancestors north of the border were killing each other over the legality of trafficking in human beings.

The celebrated victory at the Battle of Puebla had the unhappy short-term effect of causing the French, backed by Mexican Imperialists, to dig their heels in even deeper, wanting to prove they could prevail on the American continent. The movie provides more or less true-to-history details about Mexico’s fight to remain independent, and about Benito Juarez, the leader who is celebrated as the hero of that struggle. Juarez was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, a detail not lost on the moviemakers.

As a ninth-grade student of Spanish, I was fascinated by a textbook picture of Carlota in overlapping ruffles and a crown. Mexico, just a day’s drive away from my home in Texas, had been ruled by a real Emperor and Empress, who lived in a real castle at Chapultepec. Many years would go by before I knew for sure that this was NOT a good thing.

“Mom, what is the big deal about Cinco de Mayo?” my kids had asked just after we moved to Texas from Guadalajara, Mexico. “The Spanish teacher wants us to tell her classes how we celebrated this amazing festival in Mexico.”

“Tell them,” I said, “that you celebrated it pretty much the same way they celebrate the Battle of Gettysburg.”

Mexicans all over the world, with the exception of Mexico, now celebrate Cinco de Mayo, joined by non-Mexicans looking for an excuse to drink tequila and eat guacamole. They commemorate a battle that happened in Mexico, while Mexicans themselves are doing whatever they do on any other ordinary day.

Suggested reading: Abraham Lincoln and Mexico by Michael Hogan

A vintage trailer for the 1939 movie, Juarez

An excellent documentary on the Emperors of Mexico and Carlota’s 60 years of madness

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