What Americans Should Know About Cinco de Mayo

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Cinco de Mayo is a holiday often celebrated but rarely understood. For people of Mexican descent, Cinco de Mayo is a historic date that commemorates the unlikely victory of Mexican troops over the mighty French army in 1862.

Cinco de Mayo has become, for Mexican Americans, a day signifying that it is possible to overcome steep obstacles – and where better to remember that underdog spirit than in America?

Yet there are more meaningful connections to Cinco de Mayo that all Americans can relate to, such as a lesson in the price of unity and the cost of division. The foundations of the Cinco de Mayo conflict stemmed from the national debt incurred as polarized political factions pushed their differences into the civil war in Mexico’s Guerra de La Reforma, which pitted liberal and conservative forces in control of the government.

The conservative party was so upset with the new leadership of the country that they not only revolted against the government, but also against the new constitution, and borrowed money from foreign countries to fund their war effort.

The Mexican Guerra de la Reforma was similar to the American Civil War in that it was a military war as well as an ideological war over human rights and dignity. While the subject of slavery divided Americans during that country’s Civil War, it was equality, education, and private property in an unjust colonial system that brought about the problems of the Mexican conflict.

Specifically, Mexican President Benito Juarez’s liberal forces advocated for the separation of church and state, which meant depriving the Catholic Church of its vast real estate holdings to make way for more equitable ownership and a redistribution of property among ordinary citizens. Additionally, Juarez and his allies pushed to provide free public education instead of allowing the church to have complete dominance over education.

Ultimately, liberal forces defeated conservative forces that fought to maintain the status quo, and Mexico began to dismantle its colonial system and provide more opportunities for the people.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s conservative leaders continued to pressure foreign countries to intervene. As a result, there was an international dispute over the money Conservative forces borrowed from France, Spain and England during this time. Juarez had to suspend those debt payments in order to prioritize the country’s domestic needs. In an effort to restructure and stabilize the economy and national unity, Juarez closed a chapter of civil conflict but opened a new saga in the form of foreign invasion.

The price of national unity was more war – this time against France, which claimed it was fighting because of the foreign debt owed to it but actually saw an opportunity for imperialism.

While England and Spain understood that Mexico was simply asking for an extension of time to pay its debts, France sent military forces across the Atlantic to invade and occupy the country. It is here that we see the bravery, national defense and heroism of the Mexican army on May 5, 1862 – Cinco de Mayo – at the Battle of Puebla, which highlights the triumph over the French army much more important and, above all, the victory of a united country, more equitable and structured by a constitution.

The Mexican capital would eventually fall to the French and this would lead to the brief reign of French Emperor Ferdinand Maximillian. With the help of the United States, Juarez was able to regain governance of Mexico and prevail over the French and conservative Mexican forces that had challenged his vision of unity and leadership. Similar to President Abraham Lincoln, Juarez was finally able to make the changes his country needed.

Cinco de Mayo is considered a festive occasion to celebrate Mexican food and drink, but it’s more than that.

It is a lesson in courage and in overcoming great difficulties. It is an example of the extreme political polarization of a country and the resulting need for leadership that can bring stability. This set a precedent for rights and opportunities in education and home ownership. It’s an integral part of Mexican history, but also a teachable moment for all Americans who appreciate a lesson in the price of national unity — and the cost of insurrection against the principles of Constitution of a nation.

Froylan Jimenez is a Chicago Public Schools history teacher.

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