Happy Cinco de Mayo!
It’s a curious holiday with a curious history—it commemorates the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, between the Mexican army and invading French forces sent by Napoleon III, who hoped to conquer the country and bring it into France’s orbit.
The French troops landed at Veracruz and marched inland toward Mexico City. Mexican forces, who had been beaten badly in a series of skirmishes, retreated back to the heavily fortified city of Puebla. The French commander, beleiving he could end the Mexicans’ resistance with a single stroke, chose to attack the city from the north. It was a costly mistake. The Mexican defenders held, and as the French pulled back Mexican cavalry flanked them and turned the retreat into a rout.
The world expected the French to easily conquer the country, and the Mexicans’ unexpected victory served as a huge morale boost for the beleaguered defenders. That said, the success was only temporary; the French regrouped, and with the arrival of additional troops were able to win the Second Battle of Puebla in 1863. The French moved on to capture Mexico City, and where they installed Emperor Maximillian as a pro-French puppet. This “Mexican Empire” survived until 1867, when Mexican forces under Benito Juárez defeated the last remnants of the French army and had Maximillian executed.
With this background, it’s easy to see why Cinco de Mayo remains more of a mid-level holiday in Mexico today—it was a plucky, momentary victory on the eve of a large-scale defeat. In truth, the holiday is mostly celebrated in and around Puebla itself.
That said, Cinco de Mayo has taken on a new life north of the border, where it remains a major holiday among Mexican-Americans. Here, it is a festive expression of cultural pride and the honoring of cultural symbols; in this way, it shares strong similarities to St. Patrick’s Day, which is a much larger event in the US than it is in Ireland.
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Mexico is an intensely musical place; it is the home of a wonderful range of musical styles and forms, in both popular and “formal” styles. In the spirit of today’s holiday, allow me to share some recommendations of works in a more classical vein. Continue reading