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Thursday, May 5, 2011

What is Cinco de Mayo (and Why Americans Should Care)

A Brief History of Cinco de Mayo and its
Important Role in American History

Happy Cinco de Mayo everyone!

With the recent controversy over immigration, this year's Cinco de Mayo celebrations have been obscured by political, social and racial tensions, all which have created a climate of animosity between two nations that actually share more in common than they realize. Now, it's not my intent today to weigh in on the current immigration issue. I know that both sides of this issue feel passionate about their views and believe they are justified in their respective protests. With that said, I ask that you check your politics at the door. This post isn't political in nature but instead focuses on the forgotten history of this day...a day that even Americans should be thankful for.

For whatever reason, most people think Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican independence day. Not so. Mexican independence day is actually celebrated on September 16th (this year will be the 201st anniversary of Mexican independence). Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of an important battle that impacted both Mexico and the United States.

On the morning of May 5, 1862, while the United States was embroiled in its greatest crisis (the Civil War) Mexican forces under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza SeguĂ­n soundly defeated a French invasion in what became known as the Battle of Puebla. This unlikely victory not only shocked the invading French, but it also sent sound waves to the North. American leaders (better put Union leaders) were overjoyed at the news that the Mexican Army had defeated the French. After all, the French had been unofficially favoring the Confederacy, hoping that a Southern victory would help to cripple the United States. In fact, President Abraham Lincoln was so concerned with the impending French invasion of Mexico that he granted permission to several hundred Union soldiers to join up with the Mexican military. Many Union leaders sincerely believed that America's future depended on a Mexican victory. It was no mystery that French Emperor Napoleon III, who detested the United States, hoped that the invasion, occupation and eventual domination of Mexico might serve to better supply the Confederacy and once again give France a legitimate presence in the Western Hemisphere.

It seems that Mexico, however, did not get that memo. The French invasion was forced to retreat with their tails between their legs, humiliated and soundly beaten by the "inferior" Mexicans. Their quest for conquest died a sudden death as did their desire to provide aid to the Southern Confederacy. This shift in momentum came at a perfect time for the Struggling United States. It is no mystery that the early part of 1862 was not a high mark for the Union. Robert E. Lee was on a roll, the South was still strong and the Union was in desperate need of a turn of fortune. Cinco de Mayo (or perhaps better put, the Battle of Puebla) gave them at least a small turn of that fortune. This shift in momentum was later coupled with the Union victory at Gettysburg (just 2 months after 5 de Mayo). Without the coveted French aid, Confederate forces eventually succumbed to the obvious superiority of the Union's resources and manpower.

Now, I'm not suggesting that those brave 4,000 Mexican soldiers (and the few hundred Americans who accompanied them at the Battle of Puebla) saved the United States. Nobody knows what would have happened had the French won on that day. Perhaps they would have been able to strengthen the Confederacy enough to give the Union a longer fight. Perhaps not. Nobody knows. But those points miss the main point: Cinco de Mayo matters to the United States. If Americans are able to embrace and accept the Irish St. Patrick's Day holiday, surely we have enough room to accept and embrace Cinco de Mayo. After all, it had a legitimate impact on our history. At a time when our nation was saturated with nothing but crisis, our southern neighbors gave us a hand. I think that calls for a day of celebration!

Everyone raise your Coronas and Tamales! Viva Mexico y Los Estados Unidos! Feliz Cinco de Mayo a Todos!

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