Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Understanding Mexico’s road to independence


By Veronica Leonard

When we celebrate a holiday, we need to ask ourselves: What are we celebrating? We need to educate ourselves about history and pass on what we believe is true to the younger generations. While we celebrate with beer, margaritas and Mexican food, let's think about the struggles of a nation breaking away from its Spanish conquerors. By looking at the past, we can understand the world of today, and we can create a more balanced, peaceful and kind world for the future.

Many people incorrectly believe that Mexican independence from Spanish rule is commemorated by "Cinco de Mayo" (May 5). That event is actually celebrated every Sept. 16. On this major holiday, also called "fiestas patrias," we honor the peasant rebellion led by a Catholic priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, that began on Sept. 16, 1810, at a parish church in Dolores, Guanajuato, my home state.

On the evening of Sept. 16, Mexicans gather in the "jardin," "plaza" or "zocalo," and at 11 p.m. the town mayor or other high government official comes to the balcony of the government building located on the "jardín" and gives the "Grito de Dolores" ("Cry of Dolores"). The "Grito" commemorates when Hidalgo declared the independence of Mexico from Spain. While waving the Mexican flag, the mayor shouts "Viva Mexico," and the crowd echoes back "Viva Mexico."

After this highly emotional event, the illuminated Catholic churches (about one on every other corner) fill the silent night with the sound of their bells. The fireworks follow with showers of green, red and white sparks, the colors of the Mexican flag. All the events are free and paid for by the government.

On Independence Day, people are in the streets with their families listening to bands playing and watching native dancers perform in front of flower-adorned churches. They are watching parades and horse races, eating holiday dishes in the streets or just enjoying the crowds in the "jardin."

While in the United States, people celebrate Cinco de Mayo as a Mexican holiday. Most of the people living in Mexico have forgotten about the Cinco de Mayo battle against the French; although, at the time Mexico was proud to defeat one army of Napoleon III.

More than six decades later after the independence from Spain, and before the Mexican Revolution, the French invasion of Mexico started as a dispute over Mexico's decision to suspend foreign debt payments for two years. Spain, England and France decided to come to Mexico and collect their money. When Spain and England recognized that the French intended to replace Juarez's constitutional government with a French-controlled kingdom, they left the French army in the port of Veracruz and went back to Europe with their armies. The French army, not suspecting that they were under attack, started on their way to Mexico City. Mexican Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza and his army attacked the French in the fortified hills of Loreto and Guadalupe, in Puebla. The French had a larger army and were better armed and trained. But they fought in muddy fields and among hundreds of stampeding cattle used in an offensive military tactic by Zaragoza.


About 1,000 French soldiers lost their lives before they retreated back to Veracruz. As retaliation, Napoleon III dispatched 30,000 French soldiers, and 13 months later overthrew the government of Mexico City. Ten months after that, Maximilian from Austria was crowned as emperor of Mexico in April 1864.

Three years later, on June 19, 1867, Maximilian was executed in the city of Querétaro. With this action, Juarez sent a clear message to the world: Mexico did not welcome foreign invaders.

However, the arrival of the French Imperial Army in Mexico provided benefits that many in Mexico did not understand for a few decades. The French forces suppressed banditry, brought stability and improved infrastructure, trade and communications throughout Mexico.

The question is, how did an insignificant event in the history of Mexico become a holiday in the United States that rivals St. Patrick's Day? Is it because "Cinco de Mayo" (May 5) has more marketing appeal than "Dieciseis de Septiembre" (Sept. 16)? Or is the reason that the beer companies (American and Mexican) found a strategic opportunity to increase beer sales?

At the end of this column, I don't know why we celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the United States with such "gusto" (joy), but what is important is that now you know when Mexico gained its independence from Spain and can help me revisit the true history of Mexico.

"It might be a good idea if the various countries of the world would occasionally swap history books, just to see what other people are doing with the same set of facts."

—Bill Vaughan

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