Mexicans in California were so overjoyed upon hearing the news of the victory of the Mexican army over the French army, that they spontaneously celebrated the feat.
But, while the Battle of Puebla occurred in 1862—the American Civil War would rage on for three more years and the French would occupy Mexico for five more years. So how did this first battle become so memorable for Mexicans? Why did this one, out of the hundreds of battles and skirmishes of both wars, become so important and meaningful?
Because the original Battle of Puebla was magnified, and seared into Mexican memory when it was repeated one year later.
Horrified that a group of ragtag Mexicans had defeated the mightiest army on earth. French honor demanded a re-match. So, in the months following their defeat, Napoleon III sent new French troops, cannon, horses and supplies to Mexico.
Far away in California, Mexicans and other Hispanos read in the Spanish-language newspapers the details of the fortification of Puebla, and were aware that the French would return.
Finally, ten months after their disastrous defeat, the much larger French army set out on the road from Veracruz to Mexico City, arriving at the gates of Puebla on March 13, 1863. After taking a week to ring the town with artillery and batter away at the walls of Fort San Lorenzo with cannon balls, the French charged in on the evening of March 26, 1863, and the second Battle of Puebla was on.
The French army was again driven back. Two days later, on March 28, the French again charged out of their trenches to take the town, and again were driven back after ninety minutes of fierce fighting.
Nearly 1,500 miles away, crowds of Hispanos—Californios, Mexicans, Central Americans and South Americans—anxiously awaited the daily appearance of the Spanish-language newspapers to find out what was happening in Puebla. The president of the Junta Patriotica in Los Angeles wrote to the paper, La Voz de Mejico, published in San Francisco:
“[H]emos estado aquí con una ansiedad, con un deseo vehemente de saber el resultado de esa Iliada terrible y sangrienta que se está repres[e]ntando en Puebla de Zaragoza.” (We have been in anxiety here, with a passionate desire to learn the results of that terrible, bloody Iliad that is being played out in Puebla de Zaragoza.)
The second Battle of Puebla was more thrilling to the thousands of Mexicans, Californians, Central and South Americans than the first had been, because it lasted much longer, allowing for collective emotions to grow. Far from the battle, the editor of La Voz de Méjico remarked:
“Jamàs causa alguna ha escitado en los pechos de los mejicanos emociones tan vivas y violentas.” (Never before has any cause excited such lively and violent emotions in the breasts of Mexicans.)
The French siege of Puebla lasted weeks, and the heroic resistance of Puebla became a beacon for those who supported freedom and democracy. By coincidence, the first anniversary of the original battle one year earlier on Cinco de Mayo was fast approaching and taking on symbolic importance. For the French, it was important to take Puebla before the anniversary of their ignominious defeat, thus denying a moral victory to Juarez and the forces of democracy. Equally, for the citizens of Mexico and for Hispanos in California, if the Mexican army could hold on at least until May 5, it would mark their desire to defend freedom and democracy.
A week before the symbolic date of Cinco de Mayo, the French decided to gamble all that they could. After shelling the fort of Santa Ines for four days, French sappers placed explosives under the wall and blew open a breach. French artillery played over the ruins for hours, lobbing solid balls and explosive shells intended to drive the Mexican defenders away.
Then, hordes of attacking French columns stormed out of their trenches and clambered over the ruins, sure that no human could have survived. Would they be able to take Puebla before the first anniversary of the Cinco de Mayo? Would freedom and democracy finally be beaten?
Next week Part 3 of “Cinco de Mayo: The Real Story.
David E. Hayes-Bautista is Professor of Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA. His most recent book is La Nueva California: Latinos in the Golden State (University of California Press, 2004)