What Americans should learn about Cinco de Mayo

It is an integral part of Mexican history, but also a teachable moment for all Americans who value a lesson in the price of national unity — and the cost of insurrection against the principles of a nation’s Constitution.

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Members of the Ballet Folklorico Mexico Lindo perform in celebration of Cinco de Mayo before the start of a baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox in Chicago, Sunday, May 5, 2019.

Members of the Ballet Folklorico Mexico Lindo perform in celebration of Cinco de Mayo before a May 5, 2019 game between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox in Chicago.

Jeff Haynes/AP Photos

Cinco de Mayo is a holiday that is often celebrated but rarely understood. For people of Mexican descent, Cinco de Mayo is a date in history 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 overcoming steep odds is possible — 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, as a lesson in the price of unity and the cost of division. The underpinnings of the Cinco de Mayo conflict stemmed from the national debt that was incurred because polarized political factions took their differences to the point of civil war in Mexico’s Guerra de La Reforma, which pitted liberal and conservative forces at odds over control of the government.

The conservative side was so upset with the country’s new leadership that not only did they revolt against the government but also against the new constitution, and borrowed money from foreign countries to finance their war effort.

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The Mexican Guerra de la Reforma was similar to the U.S. Civil War in that it was a military war as well as an ideological war regarding human rights and dignity. While the topic of slavery divided Americans during this country’s Civil War, it was equality, education and private property in an unjust colonial system that prompted the issues in the Mexican conflict.

More specifically, the liberal forces of Mexican President Benito Juarez advocated for separation of church and state, which meant stripping the Catholic Church of its vast real estate holdings to make way for more equitable home ownership and property redistribution among ordinary citizens. In addition, Juarez and his allies pushed to provide free public education instead of allowing the church to have complete dominion over schooling.

In the end, the liberal forces defeated the conservative forces that fought to keep the status quo, and Mexico began to dismantle its colonial system and offer more opportunities to the people.

Meanwhile, Mexican conservative leaders continued to lobby foreign countries to intervene. As a result, there was an international dispute over the money that conservative forces borrowed from France, Spain and England during that period. 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 for national unity was more war — this time against France, which claimed that it was fighting because of the foreign debt that it was owed but in reality 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 much larger French army and most importantly, the victory for a united, more equitable country structured by a constitution.

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

Cinco de Mayo is viewed as a festive occasion to celebrate Mexican food and drinks, but it is more than that.

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

Froylan Jimenez is a history teacher in Chicago Public Schools.

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