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Cinco de Mayo, the 5th of May

by Dr. Arsenio Rey-Tejerina,
Anchorage, Alaska

      Cinco de Mayo, everyone loves it! Spring is on the air, people like to go out, stroll, run... Cinco de Mayo is a gorgeous date, a perfect excuse to break the dreary winter days and welcome the good weather, but ask around, what does it mean? What lies behind that date? Ask any gringo, a Mexican. She or he would probably answer: Who knows! "Quien sabe!" the way peasants and Indians responded 136 years ago to the invading Frenchmen looking for an elusive army in the mountains before Puebla. Let me tell you how it all happened.

      After a well equipped army of 6000 Frenchmen entered Mexico, the French representatives there had issued this proclamation: "Hey, you, Mexicans, we have gotten here not to take part in your disputes, but to put an end to them. Our French flag is now raised on Mexican soil, and will not retreat. Let wise men greet it as a friendly flag, let the foul fight against it, if they so dare!" By April 28, 1862, shortly after landing, the French forces had advanced unopposed into central Mexico. Their General commander, Count Charles Ferdinand de Lorencez, was even boasting to his Minister of War, back in Paris:

We are so far superior to the Mexicans in race, organization, discipline, morality and elevation of feeling that, I beg your Excellency to be so good as to inform the Emperor (Napoleon III) that we already feel we are the masters of Mexico! [The emphasis is mine].

      The commanding general of the Mexican, Ignacio Zaragoza, a Texas born and also one of the heroes of Remember the Alamo!, had stationed his 4000 men to defend the pass of Las Cumbres, near the top of a canyon. Its narrow valley running between thick, almost perpendicular rock walls, has a road rising spirally in thirty-seven loops toward the crest where a dilapidated jail was standing. The first French column was greeted by a sharp fusillade from a small group of Mexican parapeted on the jail walls and a moment later the whole valley echoed with the fire of the arrogant Frenchmen. Their Zouaves advanced au pas gymnastique, followed by a detachment of chasseurs a pied who scrambled right and left of the ruined prison walls. Waves of attackers were unable to gain a foot. Superiority of race, organization, discipline, morality and elevation of feeling were no match for the ruggedness of the mountain and its defenders! Up to fourteen companies had to be engaged and, finally, by dint and dash the position was conquered by the French troops.

      By May 4th the French were reaching the outskirts of Puebla and General Lorencez was bent on taking it at once: Saligny, the wile and guileful French ambassador, had told him that the town Conservatives would welcome his soldiers with hugs and flowers as liberators.

      The city of 80,000 inhabitants and over 150 churches was surrounded by a chain of forts. Zaragoza had placed most of his men in the forts, holding a few others behind street barricades in the city. His chief anxiety were the Pueblan themselves, who had always been, as they are still today, a conservative bunch, and could very well welcome the Frenchmen.

      The first sun rays of May 5 were glistening over the horizon with a gorgeous day. The French General had been advised by his allies not to attack the city from the North. Puebla had never been taken from that side, but boastingly he decided to march on straight, bombard and capture its northern forts. So in the early hours of May 5th they furiously attacked the forts Guadalupe and Loreto. At about 11 o'clock they had approached the first fort and began to shell its massive walls. Lorencez ordered his troops to get closer but by 12:30 they had spent half of their ammunition. He sent in his famous infantry to take the forts but the well entrenched Mexican were raking the French lines, killing two colonels and a number of soldiers. Soon their corpses were piling up the walls of Guadalupe. At this stage, Zaragoza ordered his cavalry to storm the French infantry and young Porfirio Diaz, who several years later would become a hated dictator President, led the charge. The French with all their prestige had lost the battle... and waited for another attack. But Zaragoza, who was as surprised as the French that he had defeated them, did not seize the opportunity.

      Early on, that very same evening, everyone was celebrating their first Cinco de Mayo victory, cheering, dancing and singing Mexican songs, including the Marseillaise la notre Marseillaise!!! the surviving French blurted, the national anthem of liberal revolutionaries which their emperor had even banned. President Benito Juarez decreed that from then on, Cinco de Mayo be a national holiday, the same as the 16 of September when Mexico initiated its independence, but that's another story.

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      Marches and parades are celebrated today all over Mexico; and in many places throughout the United States, where there is a large Mexican population, the date is heralded with cheers and festivities. All in memory of this Pyrrhic victory, since the Frenchmen lost the day but went on to take over Mexico.

      There are plenty of national feats to commemorate, but this is a proud and most dear occasion for the Mexican people. It was a victory they themselves could not believe and although it was a temporary defeat, it was the defeat of a European power, a formidable power as awesome as the Napoleonic army! Mexicans are an extremely proud group of people. There is a common saying that there is not a second Mexico and holding a holiday for a victory over a foreign power, even as small and insignificant as the skirmish of Puebla, is a big boost for the nation. True that, as the French went on to conquer the capital and impose Maximilian as their emperor, the Mexicans won the battle and lost the war, but the important thing is that for a while they had beaten and humiliated the French army.

      Social and economic problems pestering Mexico today are aplenty, but celebrating an ephemeral victory such as the Cinco de Mayo gives people pride and distracts them from their everyday labors and worries. Perhaps the fact that it is a hardly known event gives the festivity a certain mythical wrapping and, as time goes on, it gets enshrined in the national lore. The main point for many of us in the US is that, it is a welcome date to enjoy the outdoors after a long dreary winter, especially in a place like Anchorage, always hoping for a gorgeous day.

Arsenio Rey-Tejerina
Anchorage, Alaska