Happy Cinco de Mayo — Sorta

BY Ray Suarez  May 4, 2012 at 6:09 PM EDT

Thursday night President Obama and Michelle Obama welcomed a festive crowd, heavy on Latino leaders, to mark Cinco de Mayo — the 5th of May — an important date in Mexican history.

No, not Mexican Independence Day, which is in September. Nor is it a celebration of peace after the 1910 revolution or the day the Spanish arrived in what is now Mexico City.

Actually, in Pan-American terms, it’s a pretty cool holiday. Those of you who are a little rusty on Mexican history might want to take notes at this point.

During the early decades of its independence from Spain, Mexico borrowed heavily from European creditors. Through decades of struggling governments and devastating civil war, the borrowing continued. Then President Benito Juarez ordered a moratorium on debt repayments for two years. Not surprisingly, Britain, Spain and France were not happy about not getting their money and started muscling Mexico by sending warships to the Caribbean port of Veracruz.

France took its response further than its stiffed continental partners and sought to collect its debts at the point of a bayonet by invading Mexico. On May 5, 1862, a well-trained, well-equipped army of some 8,000 French soldiers was defeated by an ill-equipped Mexican army half that size. The battle of Puebla didn’t end the war, didn’t defeat the French and was not militarily decisive. However, Mexico’s victory at Puebla was a David-defeats-Goliath moment throughout the world and lifted the spirits of Mexican nationalists.

The war proceeded badly for Juarez’s government. The French captured Mexico City, put the Mexican army to flight and seated a spare Austrian archduke (Maximilian, who was not in line to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Vienna), on a newly created imperial throne in Mexico City. While the new Emperor Maximilian set about on such important tasks as building royal residences and designing insignia for new imperial orders of nobility, his sponsors the French set out to create a Mexico that would repay its debt to France.

The U.S. was, you might say, otherwise engaged. The Civil War had Washington struggling militarily to maintain national integrity and diplomatically to keep France and Britain neutral. Abraham Lincoln was rooting for Juarez, and the Mexican republic did eventually turn the tide.

By putting up tough resistance to France and eventually winning the war, Mexico kept France from creating an alliance with the Confederacy. Juarez just may have helped save the same American union that had seized Mexico’s huge northern territories a generation before.

Cinco de Mayo — or El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla (the Day of the Battle of Puebla), as it’s known in Mexico — was the beginning of the end of France’s Mexican adventure and Maximilian’s dreams. The emperor’s life ended as he bravely stood in front of a firing squad and shouted — no doubt in German-accented Spanish — “Viva Mexico! Viva la independencia!” Interesting stuff, right?

But why did the Obamas host a party at the White House? Why did Vice President Joe Biden host a breakfast for Latino luminaries such as the head of the National Council of La Raza and news anchors from Spanish language networks? Why was President George W. Bush entertained by Mexican dancers on the South Lawn? Why did a congratulatory message in English and Spanish from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid just land in my email inbox? And why oh why will people be downing specially priced pitchers of margaritas and red, white and green tequila shots at bars across America this weekend?

Maybe it’s an indication that Mexicans and — under the amazing ethnic muddling umbrella — all Latinos have arrived. Think of Columbus Day before it became difficult and ambivalent. Or St. Patrick’s Day, which has somehow become an occasion for faintly Gaelic revelry in place of nationalism and morning mass. Recontextualization, making something old into something new and American, has been going on as long as there’s been a U.S.

Sticklers may point out that in Mexico itself, where the Battle of Puebla happened, the 5th of May is little marked outside the state of Puebla. (Don’t worry, those same sticklers make buzzkill comments about St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin and Hanukkah in Jerusalem.) They may point out that many of our amigas y amigos downing the colored tequila shots couldn’t tell you who Maximilian was even before happy hour began.

But as Americans from many races, clans and ethnicities can tell you, the country hazes you at the front door and is singing your songs and making bad knockoffs of your food by the time you get to the buffet table. Having a night at the White House, whether the holiday is an odd fit or not, is as American as Cinco de Mayo promotionals at your local watering hole. Saludos!