I lived in Mexico City for seven years. I never saw any Cinco de Mayo celebrations until I moved to the USA years later. In Mexico it is a regional holiday centered around the state of Puebla. It commemorates the defeat of the French in the Battle of Puebla. Napoleon III decided it would be a good idea to invade Mexico – for several reasons I won’t go into here. The French army landed on the coast and marched in toward the capital. As they reached Puebla, they met with heavy resistance. Although there were only 4,000 ill equipped Mexicans, they were able to overcome and defeat the 8,000 well equipped French army on May 5, 1862.
Yay! Margarita time!!
Unfortunately Napoleon III did not take this well. The following year he sent a much larger army and was able to take over the Mexican government and place a puppet emperor at the head of it. Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was a Hapsburg and Commander in Chief of the Austrian Navy. In May 1864 he arrived in Mexico as Maximilian I, Emperor of Mexico. He was accompanied by his wife, Charlotte, Princess of Belgium.
He was liked and supported by the conservatives but had problems with the liberal forces led by Benito Juarez who refused to recognize his rule. Battles continued over the three years he was Emperor. When the US Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln supported Juarez and Napoleon III started to withdraw his troops. Maximilian fought until the end but was captured and executed in June 1867. In 1866 his wife, Charlotte, had returned to Europe seeking support for her husband but was unsuccessful. She never returned to Mexico and spent the rest of her days, until her death in 1927, in seclusion. They say she went insane and never acknowledged her husband’s death.
During the time they were in Mexico, they lived at Chapultepec Castle. It is reminiscent of the palaces of Europe with one room leading into the next and all lavishly furnished. It has big terraces with views overlooking Mexico City. When we were in grade school we had school trips to see what is now a National Museum. We could walk up the hill to the castle or we could enter the hill through a dark tunnel and take the elevator. It was both scary and thrilling to risk taking the elevator!
Every year they would show the American 1939 movie “Juarez” on Mexican TV. Bette Davis played Charlotte and she was wonderful. It is a classic and I made sure I watched it every year. I felt sorry for the European Emperor and his wife but the triumph over the French every year was exciting!!
Viva Mexico! Happy Cinco de Mayo!!