By: Ernesto Rodriguez, III, Alamo Curator
Every year Texans celebrate a holiday called Cinco de Mayo. Many do so by saluting the day with plenty of ice cold cerveza. But how many people actually know the origins of the holiday or what really happened on May 5, 1862? To help you with your celebration this year, the Alamo presents the history of Cinco de Mayo.
Determined to shed the three-hundred year long domination by Spain, Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821. The event was made possible because Mexicans had finally come to realize that they were one people and that the previous ten-year long civil war, ignited by Father Hidalgo’s famous 1810 Grito de Dolores, needed to end. The document that brought both peace and independence was called the Plan de Iguala. Signed on February 24, 1821, the plan — also known as the Plan of the Three Guarantees — promised (1) independence, (2) protection of the Catholic religion, and (3) social equality among all Mexicans. The plan called for the new government of Mexico to be a monarchy and it extended an invitation for a European nobleman to come to Mexico and assume the Mexican throne. While well intended, the plan soon broke down.
Mexicans divided into three general political factions following independence. One group, known as Monarchists, wanted to preserve the old Spanish system, but with a king that they would choose themselves. A second group, known as Centralists, opposed installing another king, wishing instead to establish a central republic in which power rested with a strong national government. Another group, known as Federalists, wished to establish a federal republic (like the United States), in which the individual states maintained their sovereignty.
The form of government that the newly established Mexican nation would adopt was important because any substantial change threatened the existing social order. Under Spanish rule, several powerful social classes, whose members tended to hold almost every important civil, military, and church office, had emerged. The groups controlling Mexico were the military, owners of large estates, and the established church. Monarchists and Centralists basically wished to preserve the status quo. Federalists, however, desired sweeping changes that would open offices and create opportunities for more Mexicans. Thus, both Monarchists and Centralists opposed the Federalists who, if allowed, would usher in both political and social changes.
Trouble began with Colonel Agustín de Iturbide, the main author of the Plan de Iguala. Instead of waiting for a European accept the Mexican crown, Iturbide seized it for himself on July 21, 1822. He ruled Mexico as Emperor Agustín I, surrounding himself with all of the trapping of royalty. His grasp for power and extravagant spending resulted in his ousting in March 1823. Mexico’s first attempt at self-government ended unsuccessfully.
By 1824, Mexico’s Federalist party ascended to power, establishing the Federal Republic of Mexico backed by the Constitution of 1824. Things were far from settled, though, as Mexico entered a period of civil war during which Federalist and Centralists fought for control of the government. Some historians refer to this series of conflicts as Mexico’s Federalist Wars. One name that should stand out is this conflict is Antonio López de Santa Anna, who dominated the Mexican political stage until 1854. The fighting did not end when Santa Anna and other older politicians exited the scene as a new generation squared against each other. Only now, however, the Federalists were known as Liberals and the Centralists were known as Conservatives. From 1858 to 1860, Mexico experienced the War of Reform. The rising star of the Liberals, Benito Juarez, became president of Mexico in 1861.
Outside forces were about to complicate Mexico’s internal conflict. In 1859, Mexican Monarchists — who had always held out hope for a second empire — revived the call for a European nobleman to accept the Mexican crown. Their choice was Prince Maximilian, the brother of Austria’s emperor. In 1861, Great Britain, Spain, and France organized an expedition to Mexico to collect debts owed to their citizens. The first two named countries quickly distanced themselves from the plan when it became apparent that France’s Napoleon III’s real intent was to install Maximilian as Mexico’s emperor. French and Austrian troops landed at Veracruz and began their march towards Mexico City.
On May 5, 1862, Liberal forces met and defeated the Monarchists at the Battle of Puebla. The commander of the Liberal troops at the battle was, Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, who was born in Goliad, Texas. The defeat proved to be only a temporary setback, however, as the Monarchists were able to regroup, push on, and capture the Mexican capital. On April 10, 1864, Maximilian, who had arrived at Mexico City, was crowned Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico.
The war between the Liberals and the Monarchists lasted for several more years. Napoleon III’s decision to withdraw French support for the project spelled doom for Maximilian. With his forces defeated, he and his loyal Mexican lieutenants were captured and ultimately executed on June 19, 1867. Tired of war, Mexico united under Juarez and the Liberals and finally entered a period of peace and prosperity. Much of that era occurred under the presidency of General Porfirio Díaz, a hero of the Battle of Puebla who held that office off and on from 1876 to 1911.
So what does Cinco de Mayo represent? Like other battles in world history, it symbolizes the fight for the right of a people to self-rule without outside interference. Although it may be an event in Mexican history, as a symbol of resistance to tyranny Cinco de Mayo transcends national boundaries, allowing it to be celebrated by people in all nations.
A version of this article originally appeared in “The Alamo Messenger,” the Alamo’s monthly e-newsletter. Subscribe Here