The Black History Behind Cinco De Mayo

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Every year on the 5th of May, many celebrate Cinco de Mayo by going out for margaritas and partying. But ESSENCE wants to make sure you know the real reason for the season—Cinco de Mayo is actually considered to be a key factor behind the Confederacy losing the Civil War.

Over, 150 years ago during “the early 1860s, under the guidance of President Benito Juárez, Mexico was emerging from several tumultuous decades filled with internal strife, civil war and foreign intervention.” Mexico had accrued enormous amounts of debts and owed large sums to European creditors, but Juárez, who was trying to create stability, “declared a two-year moratorium on the payment of foreign debts.”

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The three European countries with the most owed were England, France, and Spain, and they sent troops over to Mexico. But whereas England and Spain were able to amicably reach a deal and subsequently withdrew, France decided to stay.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Napoleon III, then-Emperor of France, was plotting to gain control of Mexico. In theory, it was good strategy, because if successful France would have gained a stronghold in North America. Because the United States was embroiled in our own Civil War, we wouldn’t be interrupting Napoleon’s plans since there was no realistic way for the U.S. to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Furthermore, if the French gained control over the Mexican government, “Napoleon could provide guns to the Confederacy in exchange for Southern cotton, a scarce commodity in Europe thanks to Union shipping blockades.”

The plan was for the well-trained and better funded French forces to capture Mexico City. But Napoleon’s scheme disintegrated on May 5, 1862 at the Battle of Puebla. In a David versus Goliath battle for the ages, the well-funded and trained French army “took a surprise beating at Puebla at the hands of Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza and a ragtag group of enlisted and volunteer troops.” Despite being outnumbered and outmanned, the Mexican army held Puebla and forced the French to retreat.

The French wouldn’t return until a year later, but this delay was enough time for the Union to achieve key victories “before Napoleon could provide upgraded artillery and munitions to the Confederacy.”

In his book, “The Political Evolution of the Mexican People,” historian Justo Sierra wrote “had Mexico not defeated the French in Puebla, France would have gone to the aid of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War and the United States’ destiny would have been different.”

As such, Black American history is inextricably intertwined with Cinco de Mayo. By holding their ground, Mexico contributed to the defeat of slavery, and this is why many consider the Mexican army’s triumph over the French at the Battle of Puebla to be a victory over white supremacy in North America.

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