Monday, May 5, 2008

Why we all should celebrate Cinco de Mayo

Ask most Americans what happened on May 5, 1862 and they’re likely to guess it had something to do with the Civil War. Assuming they know when the Civil War occurred. Or that we had one.

Something probably did occur on that day during the Civil War, but what makes the date lastingly significant is what took place in Mexico. On that date, Cinco de Mayo, Mexican soldiers surprised even themselves in defeating a major military component of one of the most powerful nations in the world – France.

Those who do recognize Cinco de Mayo as a major Mexican holiday also celebrated in the Lone Star state still wrongly think the day is our sister republic’s version of the Fourth of July. Cinco de Mayo does not mark a declaration of independence. Rather, it celebrates an event that helped sustain Mexican independence. And even though Mexico won the Battle of Puebla on that day, it still had five years of guerilla warfare ahead before the country’s invaders returned to the land of wine and souffl├ęs.

That’s a very general summary of the thrust of a well-researched and well-written book by Austin author Donald W. Miles, “Cinco de Mayo: What Is Everybody Celebrating?” (Lincoln: iUniverse, 278 pages, $20.95.)

Like many problems, the French misadventure in Mexico – a tragicomedy if there ever was one -- started over money. Mexico owed France a bundle (as it did Great Britain and Spain). All three nations broke off diplomatic relations and sent troops to Mexico. But France’s Napoleon III was after more than a defaulted loan payment. Sending the largest force, he had hopes of resurrecting his nation’s long-held dream of a French empire in the New World. After all, the U.S. with its Monroe Doctrine was preoccupied in bloody national fratricide.

On May 5, 1862, however, Napoleon’s plan began to go awry. Texas-born Mexican Gen. Ignacio Zaragosa, at the town of Puebla, soundly defeated 6,000 attacking French soldiers. In fact, the French lost one man out of six.

While Texans who bother to give this episode any thought might see the French intrusion into Mexico as merely interesting, what happened back then was potentially a much bigger deal not only to Texas, but the whole United States.

Napoleon not only wanted the French tri-color forever flying over Mexico, he hoped to cozy up to the South and help them win against the North. Of course, while paying lip service to the Confederacy, he might just help himself to Texas while he was at it.

A Confederate diplomat in Belgium wrote President Jefferson Davis: “He [Napoleon III] will remain anxious for us to believe that he is silently our friend. Mexico first, and then Mexico as she was previous to her dismemberment [the Texas Revolution] is the resolutely and faithfully cherished and at which he aims.”

Miles does an excellent job of telling a complicated story, breaking each chapter of his book into a series of readable vignettes that are as entertaining as they are informative. He also has an eye for interesting detail and fascinating characters, from the boozy ranking French diplomat in Mexico (the same Pierre Saligny who occupied the French embassy in Austin during the early days of the Republic of Texas) to Princess Agnes Salm-Salm, who took her clothes off to try to convince a Mexican officer to release French-imposed Emperor Ferdinand Maximilian from prison following the collapse of his regime.

A couple of good examples of the interesting detail Miles turned up in his research (much of it at the Benson Latin American collection at the University of Texas) come in his description of the early stages of the fight at Puebla.

The French expected to march into Puebla unopposed. When the first Mexican artillery round exploded in their midst, one of the French commanders thought the Mexicans had merely fired a respectful salute. Even when it became obvious that they would have to charge uphill toward the highly-fortified town, the French rank-and-file took a coffee-and-pastry break.

I knew I was hooked on the book when browsing around before really getting serious about paging through it, I found a scene where a Mexican woman mooned French soldiers from the window of a convent. (No, the author did not explain whether the woman was a patriotic nun or just some senora strongly opposed to French intervention.) Whoever she may have been, the French found it tremendously insulting and began firing at the window. The woman dropped her skirt and disappeared, her point made.

With Miles’ new book, Texans now have two ways to celebrate Cinco de Mayo – with food, drink and festivities or by partaking of a good read.