Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican national holiday that commemorates an all-day battle in Puebla, Mexico, when the Mexican military defeated the numerically superior French forces that invaded Mexico in 1861.
The French, along with the Spanish and English, had occupied Veracruz, Mexico’s major port, in response to Mexico President Benito Juárez’s moratorium on Mexico’s European debt.
Spain and England withdrew while the French began collecting port revenues from incoming ships in lieu of payment on the debt and ordered their troops into the interior.
Although the 1862 defeat in Puebla slowed down the advance, the French capitalized on political divisions in the country and a weak treasury in order for Napoleon III to establish a monarchy with Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph at its head.
The French takeover did not occur without either a military response or a popular reaction of significant nationalist proportions. The defense of the homeland acquired extra meaning from the earnest Juárez who continued to exercise his authority as president and national symbol of mourning, in his elegant black suit, riding a black horse-drawn carriage that miraculously managed to keep him ahead of the French military.
Hostilities finally ended when Mexican forces defeated the French in 1867 and President Juárez ordered the execution of Ferdinand together with some Mexican monarchists who had opposed him.
The celebration of the battle of Puebla also acknowledges the heroic role of Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, a 32-year officer from Goliad, Texas. Soon after the surrender of Veracruz, Juárez had appointed him minister of war and navy, and assigned him to lead the Army of the East and the defense of Puebla.
Soon after the battle of Puebla and before the French had advanced on Mexico City, President Juárez hosted a celebration of Zaragoza as a national hero. The president also declared May 5, 1862, a national holiday and changed the name of Puebla de Los Angeles to Puebla de Zaragoza.
Zaragoza has a special place in Mexico and Texas history. He not only originated in Goliad and claimed relations with Tejanos from the colonial period, but he began his military career in the Monterrey-Saltillo area and married a young woman from Monterrey.
In preparation for the famous battle of Puebla, Gen. Zaragoza recruited around 500 Tejano cowboys from the Jim Wells County area of South Texas who served as cavalrymen in the fight against French intervention even in the months and years following that actual battle.
Capt. Porfirio Zamora, from Palito Blanco, Texas, served as one of the commanders and received a promotion to the rank of major after the war, as well as the second highest military medal for bravery, “La Condecoración de Segunda Clase.”
Zaragoza’s personal connections to Texas alone do not fully explain his exalted place in history. The active efforts to remember him and the battle of Puebla also contributed to the memory.
News of the battle and Zaragoza’s role as “the General from the Border” and “the native son” of the region, according to the well-known scholar Américo Paredes, arrived in South Texas as early as 1867 when performers like Onofre Cárdenas from San Ignacio, Texas, sang ballads about both. Newspapers from Texas and California also acknowledged their histories and announced the celebrations by the 1870s. Texas cemented his memory as an iconic transborder and transnational hero against foreign aggression by establishing the General Zaragoza State Historic Site near Goliad.
So why should we continue finding relevance in the memory of the Battle of Puebla, Juárez, Zaragoza and Zamora? Because it affirms enduring and shared values such as advancing the just defense of the homeland and the necessary cause for marginalized and maligned people. These tenets are still upheld today.
Recognizing and practicing this kind of valued behavior also grants a good measure of humanity to the descendants of the heroes of Puebla, including the Mexican immigrants among us who have historically labored long and hard for low pay and little positive recognition. History, after all, is not just a record of things past, it is also the binding arc of humanity and the ennobling opportunity to recognize the equal worth of others and to act on their behalf.
Emilio Zamora is a professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel, San Antonio Express News, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Abilene Reporter News, Austin American Statesman, Rio Grande Guardian and Corpus Christi Caller Times.
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