A year after being beaten by the Mexican army defending freedom and democracy at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, the French army returned, eager to retrieve its honor after being beaten by a “tribe of savages.” Aware that the Mexican army would not flee, French General Forey decided to conduct a classic siege of the town: cannons would batter away a portion of a wall, then French troops would charge in to take the town.
For nearly two months, every single time the French charged, the Mexican defenders pushed them back. But how much longer could the defenders hold out?
Driven to take Puebla before the symbolic date of May 5, Forey staked everything on one last attempt. After blowing up a wall, on April 25, 1863, thousands of French troops charged into the breach…
Meanwhile, back in California, Mexicans in Los Angeles anxiously waited for news of the battle. As most of the Spanish-language newspapers were published in San Francisco, Mexicans in the southern part of the state had to wait for the news to arrive by stagecoach — four days after being printed in the Bay Area. The stagecoach arrived on May 25: the bundles of newspapers were thrown down to the anxious crowd, where they were ripped open and passed around. The crowd began to cheer as they read the combat reports published in “La Voz de Mejico.” After surviving a hellish nightmare of explosives and shells, as the French soldiers ran up the ruins of the wall, the Mexican soldiers rose out of the rubble to meet them.
For more than seven hours, the French and Mexican soldiers were locked in hand-to-hand combat on the walls of Puebla. Then, in a giant effort, the Mexican defenders threw back the French one more time, taking seven commanders, numerous other officers, and 130 members of the First Regiment of Zouaves as prisoners.
The French retreated, stunned: their gamble had failed. The Mexican army had held! When the sun rose over Puebla on May 5, 1863, the Mexican flag, a symbol of freedom and democracy, still waved over the town!
Overjoyed, Mexicans in Los Angeles decided to commemorate the heroic effort made by the forces of freedom and democracy 1,500 miles away. The officers of the local Junta Patriotica Mejicana immediately started to raise funds, and the first official celebration of Cinco de Mayo was held. That night, over 400 people gathered on the hill behind town — about where the Music Center is now— where a giant bonfire illuminated portraits of President Juarez and General Zaragoza, and the Mexican militia fired off volleys of shots announcing the joyous event.
The next morning at dawn, the US and the Mexican flags were raised as the Mexican and Hispano militia fire off a twenty-one-gun salute. At 4:00 in the afternoon, a crowd gathered in the Plaza for the official program created by the officers of the Junta Patriotica.
The main speaker was Francisco P. Ramirez, born in Los Angeles when it was still part of Mexico, but by then an ardent supporter of the Union cause and an outspoken advocate of freedom and democracy everywhere in the North American land mass. He reminded the crowd that while their roots were in Mexico and Latin America, they were now living in the US, which was also being split by a fratricidal war over issues of freedom or slavery.
After his speech, the joyous crowd paraded around the town, headed by a band and the Mexican color guard carrying both the US and the Mexican flags. For over two hours the procession cheered and sang. As the parade wound down, the animated citizens of Los Angeles vowed that they would commemorate the Battle of Puebla every year, regardless of the final outcome of either war—the America Civil War or the French Intervention.
Then, just days later, the solemn news arrived from Mexico. Puebla’s defenders, out of food and ammunition, were reduced to throwing rocks at the French attackers, and were finally overpowered by the better-supplied French. Puebla had fallen! The French were moving onto Mexico City! President Juarez and his government had to flee! Was their celebration of Cinco de Mayo destined to be a one-time event?
To be continued.
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).