Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Battle of Madison Avenue

"The King of France went up the hill, with twenty thousand men; the King of France came down the hill, and ne'er went up again." ~ Variation of "Old Tarlton’s Song" (English nursery rhyme from the sixteenth century)

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Put down the tequila bottle and back away from the guacamole and tortilla strips, America. Before you celebrate Cinco de Mayo, let’s make sure we all reach a consortium with the large corporations that are hoping to sell a lot of their mass produced nachos and margarita mix before going any farther. Hopefully, everyone has learned by now that Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexican Independence Day, which is on the sixteenth of September. Cinco de Mayo is the day that Mexican troops defeated forces from France in the Battle of Puebla. I’ll bet a lot of people know about that now as well.

But in the days leading up to the holiday, you’re bound to read a lot of incorrect facts and almost nefarious ideas; not only about the battle of Puebla, but concerning exactly how and where this day gained whatever fame it may or may not deserve.

One thing to keep in mind is that it isn’t a holiday celebrated in most of Mexico. With the exception of the city of Puebla, and the dubious shindigs in tourist cantinas, the fifth of May in Mexico isn’t that different from the fourth of May or even the sixth. And regardless of the presidential proclamation (Benito Juarez had run North and far away from the invasion at the time, it sort of fell on deaf ears), it never has quite caught on in Mexico. In fact, it began as an American holiday. Honest.

Beyond that, there are myths that appear as fact, especially on the internet. You’ll read that the battle of Puebla was won by a Mexican force outnumbered two to one. Actually, they were outnumbered about four to three, with an unknown number of uncounted civilians fighting for Mexico. Another unproven position that has gained traction over the years, is that the battle of Puebla is sacred to the U.S. as having somehow stopped France from marching into Georgia and fighting on the side of the Confederate Army, a posit from UCLA professor David E. Hayes-Bautista. While it is quite a romantic notion to link Cinco de Mayo to the American Civil War, Hayes-Bautista obviously has no firm grasp of French history.

The best place to start any good story of invading a country under pretext in the middle of the nineteenth century is in France.

France, 1852 through 1871 – The Rise and Fall of Second French Empire

Napoleon III, after four years as President of the Second French Republic, became Emperor of the French in the Second French Empire. His rule, especially in the first eight years, was authoritarian, and all opposition was censored and silenced at his whim. While speaking of peace, Napoleon enjoyed employing his quite superior French troops to back French interests. The indemnities, compensations, territories, and trade opportunities that resulted were fuel for the industrial revolution in France.

French forces aligned with English forces (along with Turks, Sardinians, Germans, and even Swiss) successfully fought the Crimean War against a Russian alliance. The resulting victory gave France increased authority in Europe. France also took part in the Second Opium War along side British Empire, the result of which commanded trade routes and resulted in a large indemnity for France. The pretext for the Second Opium War was the murder of a missionary.

In Italy, Napoleon had employed French troops to restore Pope Pius IX as ruler of the Papal States, a move that won wide support from European Catholics. Concurrently, Napoleon negotiated with the Italian revolutionaries responsible for seizing the Papal States in hopes of helping to establish an Italian unification, which was very popular with the liberal left. Ultimately, Napoleon succeeded in his true intentions, which was to expel Austria from the Italian peninsula and gain Savoy and Nice from Piedmont in the process. This was to be a pattern in the rule and foreign policy of Napoleon III; attempt to satisfy both right and left with a completely different endgame in mind. Napoleon’s duplicity was never obvious by his intentions beforehand, but is only made transparent by the results.

When Napoleon had caught wind that Mexico’s monarchists approached Maximilian, an archduke from the Royal house of Austria, and they had asked him to become the Emperor of Mexico, Napoleon saw opportunity. Mexico was vulnerable and cash poor, President Benito Juárez having recently suspended the interest payments on foreign debt, and the precariousness of the new constitution of 1857 was laid wide open after the resulting Mexican War of the Reform had brought it, along with Juárez, into power. Maximilian at first resisted, but once France convinced him that they would supply support, he agreed.

Under the terms in the Treaty of London signed in 1861, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom set sail and landed in Veracruz in order to pressure Mexico into paying their debts. Soon after landing, both Spain and the United Kingdom realized that this was a pretext for France to occupy and possibly colonize Mexico, and they left within six months. Was Napoleon and France actually after the colonization of Mexico? Was the invasion of Mexico part of a much larger plan to enter into the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy? Neither scenario, in spite of Napoleon’s "Grand Scheme for the Americas", would have resulted in a satisfying outcome and would have been quite inconsistent with the true strategies that Napoleon employed in foreign policy.

The interventions and invasions by Europe during the middle of the nineteenth century were mostly intended to ensure the exploitation of resources and enable profitable trade. In Mexico, the gold and silver to the north were certainly goals of Napoleon, along with a way to circumvent the successful sea embargo by the Union in order to allow France to trade with the Confederacy by way of Texas. To commit the troops necessary for colonization of Mexico would have been a disaster for France; to invade America to fight on the side of the Confederacy was never seriously considered. France had other issues at hand closer to home. Prussia was now a dominating factor in Europe, and war was looming. Ultimately, France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war would lead to the end of the Second French Empire.

The United States of America and the Western Territories, 1846 through 1867 – Manifest Destiny, the Treaty of Hidalgo, and the American Civil War

In 1846, the United States of America declared war on Mexico. As with most wars, there was pretext, in that Texas had decided it was a republic, and that apparently a Mexican patrol had killed some American troops, in a skirmish referred to as "The Thornton Affair". Over the years, the Thornton Affair has been revised so many times that the truth might never be known. The very idea of taking the Mexican north goes back as far as President Andrew Jackson, who believed that it was necessary to obtain all territory north of the 37th parallel in order to ensure that the British empire would have no success at claiming that land.

The Mexican-American War was fought on several fronts, culminating in an invasion force which landed at Veracruz (about 15 years before French forces landed!), which ironically included future opposing Generals in the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Mexican forces were routed, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in early 1848. The treaty, along with the later Gadsden Purchase (which was so unpopular in Mexico that it led to the banishment of Santa Anna for good), granted the United States of America with the territories of Nuevo Mexico and Alta California.

This land grab, by now, was an important part of hostilities between the Southern and Northern American States. In his memoirs, perhaps President Grant put it best into perspective. "The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times." The Southern States were delighted to have the opportunity to add representation to their ongoing battle with the Northern States over State’s rights, slavery, and other issues that eventually led to civil war. The Northern States were wary of it.

California was on a fast track to becoming a State, and the Compromise of 1850 was reached in order to stave off civil war (which only lasted about four years until the Kansas-Nebraska act). Part of this compromise was that California was to be a slave-free State (as Texas was already a slave State), and the rest of the territories could determine their own status by popular vote. While the Mexican authorities had retreated back to Mexico after the Mexican-American war, the native population remained. With the gold rush of 1848 came more settlers in the years that followed.

California’s involvement in the American Civil War was pedestrian. While troops were recruited and sent to fight for the Union, many settlers in California came from the South. They were generally powerless to affect the war; Confederate sympathizers were prevented from organizing and denying them the use of the mail closed down their newspapers. William Gwin, once a congressman from Mississippi, moved to California upon Statehood and was elected as Senator. After the Civil War broke out, he toured the South and returned to California, where he spoke on behalf of the South, going so far as to consider the possibility for a separate Republic centered in California to secede from the Union. On a trip to New York, Gwin was arrested, then released, and eventually fled to France during their occupation of Mexico where, ironically, he approached Napoleon III with an idea about a project to settle American slave-owners in Sonora, Mexico. While Napoleon was favorable, Maximilian rejected the proposal outright, fearing that Gwin would wish to seize the land and start a new Republic.

In the middle of the American Civil War, France, Spain, and Britain signed the Treaty of London in 1861, ostensibly to blockade Mexico and put pressure on her to repay her debts. It was when France invaded that the United States of America formally protested; but in the midst of Civil War, there was no way to provide aid to Mexicans backing a Republic over a Monarchy. In order to ensure non-interference from Britain and France, President Lincoln successfully blockaded Confederate ports, pushed an abolitionist agenda that was socially popular in Europe, and proclaimed the Confederacy as "insurrectionists" rather than belligerents which forced England and then all of Europe to declare neutrality. The only true threat of intervention was at a point when the major European nations were considering offering mediation, which would have had the disastrous result of automatically extending recognition by Europe of the Confederacy.

Meanwhile, word had reached California that French forces had been defeated at Puebla. California, still inhabited by a large percentage of Mexicans, read the news in Spanish in San Francisco’s La Voz de Mejico, or from several other small Spanish presses left intact after the Mexican-American War, celebrating wildly. While the American Civil War was raging far away, the Mexican population in California had something closer to their interests to read, three times per week, if there was any news at all to be read from the French invasion. That holiday – Cinco de Mayo – was born in California, in the years that followed the Battle of Puebla.

Ultimately, when the American Civil War ended, President Andrew Johnson tried and failed to gain support of Congress to supply arms to Juárez in order to hasten the retreat and departure of French forces from Mexico. Instead, Johnson ordered a sea blockade to keep any possible French reinforcements from arriving, and moved some fifty thousand troops to the Texas border. Besides American troops threatening to invade and engage French forces on Mexico’s soil, approximately 300,000 muskets were "misplaced" in an area very "close" to Mexico’s border (or unofficially, guns and ammunition were left neatly placed on Mexico’s side of the border).

The United Mexican States and Territories, 1855 through 1867 – The Ley Juárez, the Mexican War of the Reform, and the French Intervention in Mexico

The Gadsden Purchase was the last straw in the storied career of Dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna. Throughout Mexico’s history, internal struggles between the conservatives who supported a centralized and hierarchical form of government, and liberals who wanted a federal republic, led to constant political struggles, violent opposition, and even all-out civil war. Benito Pablo Juárez García, born poor and raised by an uncle, took a domestic job as a young boy that eventually led him to the opportunity to study law. Eventually, he became a judge and then was governor of the state of Oaxaca from 1847 to 1852. In 1853, he went into exile in protest of Santa Anna’s corruption and abuse of power, but returned to Mexico in 1855 when Santa Anna was forced to resign.

Under General Juan Álvarez, Juárez served as Chief Justice, and liberal reforms were broadly implemented that proved immediately unpopular with the conservatives. Under the Ley Juárez, the power of the Catholic Church and the military were severely restrained, all citizens were declared as equals, and an economic model based on capitalism and free trade was proposed similar to that of the United States of America. Álvarez gave way to Ignacio Comonfort and Juárez became Comonfort’s Vice President. The new Constitution of 1957, which included Juárez’s liberal revolutionary laws, led to the Mexican War of the Reform, and ultimately Comonfort was forced to resign the Presidency and Juárez was jailed briefly before he managed to escape to Quéretaro.

Civil War had broken out and while the Conservatives controlled Mexico City, Juárez was named as President by the Liberals and forced to retreat to Veracruz. General Félix Zuloaga, meanwhile, was installed as President in Mexico City. Fighting continued for almost four years, as the Conservatives had the upper hand at first, but the Liberals ultimately proved to be too much. On January 1st, 1861, Mexico City was finally taken back. Unfortunately for Juárez, the victory was made bitter almost immediately.

Most of the Conservatives regrouped and remained in Mexico, and plotted to install Maximilian as the Emperor of Mexico. Concurrently, the Liberal Government was pressured into giving amnesty to many of the Conservatives. Meanwhile, Juárez was faced with external pressure from Spain, Britain, and France for the large debts owed to them by Mexico. When Juárez could not pay the debt, the three countries sent ships to Veracruz and seized the Veracruz customs house in December of 1861. Shortly thereafter, Spain and Britain left, recognizing this as a pretext of other motives by France.

The French Army was led by General Charles de Lorencez, who was led to believe that the people of Puebla were friendly to the French and that any resistance in Puebla would be quelled by the populace once that French troops arrived. It was this miscalculation, and the overconfidence of the French Army in general that led to the defeat at Puebla. On May 5th, 1862, Lorencez began his attack from the North, and toward the middle of the day. It didn’t go well, and the forces led by Mexican Commander General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín was able to withstand three assaults before forcing the French retreat. The French lost over 450 of its 6,000 soldiers, while Mexico only suffered less than 100 killed from 4,500 soldiers and uncounted fighting civilians.

The battle was not so remarkable in terms of numbers; the French were unfamiliar with the terrain, and the daily afternoon rains in Puebla certainly helped the Mexican forces. But the French were the elite army of the era, and hadn’t lost a battle in over fifty years. Mexico’s victory was short-lived, however. By June, French forces had Zaragoza and his troops bottled up in Veracruz. In the months that followed, French reinforcements arrived, and by October of 1863, Maximilian was crowned as the Emperor of Mexico. Juárez, meanwhile, had retreated to Chihuahua, and his calls for a National Battle of Puebla Day were shouted in the direction of North of the border.

Early on, Napoleon had warned Maximilian that his support was not likely to last. Maximilian was stubborn, he believed that the conservatives who put him in power would continue to win battles against the opposition. One problem was that Maximilian was becoming unpopular with his conservative base for implementing many liberal reforms. He even offered Juárez the post of Prime Minister, which Juárez declined. When a war between France and Prussia became imminent, Napoleon began to pull troops out of Mexico and pleaded with Maximilian to leave the country. Maximilian refused, and ultimately, was betrayed by one of his own Generals when he tried to escape, once the Republicans had cornered him in Queretero.

The Celebration of Cinco de Mayo, 1863 through 2010 – Culture and Heritage vs. Madison Avenue, the New Invading Force

The very first organized celebration of The Battle of Puebla couldn’t have taken place on May 5, 1862, but accounts of celebrations in California since then are widely documented. As the population grew in California, so did the celebrations. The old Plaza del Pueblo de Los Angeles is the largest of organized Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and many cities and towns up and down California have had continuous parties each year on the fifth of May. While it’s easy to understand how it happened, and perhaps even why it happened, the way it seems to have taken the entire country and converted many people into tequila-drinking, guacamole-eating revelers one day out of every year can only be summed up when taking into account that Madison Avenue is to America now, what the invading French were to Mexico then.

The battle of Puebla is remarkable in some ways and unremarkable in others. The Mexican Army wasn’t so outnumbered by the French, no matter what you read on the internet, and while the defeat by the French was certainly great news for Mexicans living in California who were probably dismayed reading about a Confederate Army gaining victories in battles in the American Civil War, it didn’t hold back the French for very long at all. It also seems quite an incredible reach to believe that the battle of Puebla had any effect or even any relationship to the American Civil War. As President Grant pointed out, the American Civil War probably had more of a relationship to the Mexican-American war than to any other conflict.

So, celebrate Cinco de Mayo if you must, so long as you understand what you’re celebrating. And real Mexicans drink their tequila without limes and salt, traditional margaritas are not made in a blender with crushed ice, and no self-respecting Mexican would dip a tortilla strip in guacamole unless the guacamole was hand-made using fresh avocados. And know that the people in Mexico, respectfully and admirably and sometimes even lovingly, think that us Americans are nuts. But in Mexico, any reason for a party is a good reason.


Blogger VH said...

dear friend (ya sabes quien soy Da)

"having somehow stopped France from marching into Georgia and fighting on the side of the Confederate Army, a posit from UCLA professor"

I really like the way you use the word "posit"; in my old oxford it's only a verb. Here we see the transformation of Anglish, much like you posit ocurred with the holy day of one particular imperialist war.

Also reminds me of the museum of interventions in coyoacan where I went one day in 1990, a couple visits to DF ago.

5:35 PM, May 12, 2010  
Blogger India: my motherland said...


9:59 PM, February 17, 2012  
Blogger Harini Babu said...

nice to read this it is very nice blog.
Metal Planters

5:28 AM, March 04, 2014  

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