It started as invasion by France to collect a debt, but the larger and better equipped French invasion force was defeated by a ragged group of Mexicans, some armed with little more than machetes and pitchforks. The Battle of Puebla on 5 May 1862 hardly registers in Mexico, but around the world Cinco de Mayo has become a cultural event. It was, at the heart of it, a people’s victory. It took a few years for the colorful armies and politicians to sort it all out, but the victory at Puebla is a story deep at the heart of Mexican character – a determination and toughness that the great continent of North America shares as a very odd, sometimes dysfunctional family.
This is the year of Mexico’s Bicentennial. In 1810, Spain was being ravaged by Napoleon and utterly incapable of maintaining order in its sprawling empire. Something had to be done. On the 16 September, Father Miguel Hidalgo celebrated Mass with a call for independence, and after a brief war New Spain was left behind and Mexico was born. It stretched from what is now Oregon to Colombia, sprawling across the underbelly of the continent. Shortly afterward, the southern section across the jungles of Mayaworld broke away, then fell apart into the smaller states of Central America that still tend to share the same blue/white/blue in their flags.
Unlike its eventual neighbor to the North, the United States of Mexico was founded in a need to create order in a world that was falling apart. The conflict between a strong centralized government and local control that today tears at the Estados Unidos del Norte today has always been at the core of Mexico.
Creating order from chaos is not something that North Americans, as a people, are particularly known for. We are perched on a rugged continent, taking care of what we have to as we have to and making the best of opportunities. Mexico, in particular, has shown a remarkable resilience. The French learned this the hard way when they took control of the central government in Mexico City in 1862. The reason that Cinco de Mayo resonates as a people’s holiday is that it shows their grit – you might be able to beat us, but we cannot be conquered.
Before the sorry dust-up with France, there was the war between two of the brothers that make up North America. The US-Mexican War ended with the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo in 1848 in which we took about 1/3 of Mexican land for $15 million. It’s worth noting that Arizona was once on one side of the border, and is now on the other – yet in a sense, it has always been Mexico. The same pioneering spirit that brought Anglos in from the East to seek opportunity now brings people up from the South for the same reason. No matter how many pieces of paper are dictated, signed, and filed the spirit of the people remains the same. Denying this is to deny the reality of who we all are and what we share.
Yet we all tend to forget the details of these wars and battles as we move on with our lives, regardless of which side of the border we find ourselves on. Within 5 years from the first Cinco de Mayo the US Civil War was settled, the French were firmly kicked out of Mexico, and the UK granted Canada Dominion status (home rule). The continent passed through adolescence into full citizenship in the world together. We all forget the embarrassment of our fights because like troubled teens there are simply so many other things that we’ve had going on in our lives.
Since that time, Mexico has grown and at times prospered as waves of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and many other places came to settle there almost as much as they did further North. It has 100 million people struggling to make sense of their history and determine what it all means to them as one people. Like any dysfunctional family, they often want to define themselves by their older and wealthier brother who somehow always seemed to be the favored one. The comparisons are made easily because we share so many values, but in the end they are meaningless. History may have been a little harder on Mexico, but that only makes its heart stronger and its heavy burdens that much more bearable.
That’s what we celebrate on Cinco de Mayo. I like to joke that in the USofA it’s just St. Patrick’s Day with better food, but there is much more to it than that. For all the grand ideas that gave birth to the USofA, our younger brother came into the world with little more than determination and a spirit that cannot be crushed. These are values at the heart of our family. We have a lot to celebrate together because as we grow older it becomes more and more clear that we have much more to share than we might have previously thought.
What we have is North American experience, the North American family story. It doesn’t matter if it is told in English or Spanish or French, and Cinco de Mayo is as good of a day to celebrate it as any. ¡Salud!