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Warren Graham's Blog

Postings by Warren on a variety of timely and (hopefully) interesting topics

Friday, May 05, 2006

Cinco de Mayo: Is it Good for the Jews?

by: Warren R. Graham

Today is the fifth of May: Cinco de Mayo. What, if anything, does that mean to us? We just two days ago celebrated Yom Ha’atzma’ut, the 58th Anniversary of Israel’s Independence, and I was wondering what, if anything, these two holidays, coming, as they do, so close on the calendar, might have in common. Huh?

First of all, do we even know what Cinco de Mayo is all about? Well, in the U.S.A., it has become yet another excuse for a party (as they say in Hebrew, siba le’mesiba). The makers of Corona Beer and all things guacamole-related see this as an annual bonanza. Amazingly, it is more widely celebrated here than in Mexico, where the official celebration is generally limited to the town of Pueblo (more about that later). Undoubtedly, Hallmark now has cards for it, and it will eventually become (if it has not already), a reason for a sale at the large department stores: Bloomingdales ‘Cinco de Mayo White Sale Event.’

But what is this holiday, really? I imagine that those who don’t know but give it some thought, expect that it is Mexico’s Independence Day. It is not. In some respects, though, it might well be seen as such.

Now, for a bit of history. In fact, Mexico had long been independent when the 5th of May, 1862 rolled around. At that time, Mexico, having lost about ½ of its territory to the U.S., including Texas and California, was nearly bankrupt and deeply in debt to several of the European Powers. In desperation, its president, Benito Juarez, suspended debt payments, hoping the country could get back on its feet. The European Powers, specifically Britain, France and Spain sent “representatives,” backed up by troops, to collect. Meanwhile, Juarez, a “liberal,” was busy fending off opposition in Mexico to the “conservative” forces of the aristocracy and the Catholic Church. The European armies arrived in Mexico at Vera Cruz. The Mexicans managed to settle their differences with Spain and England, and their troops made for home. The French, however, under Napoleon III were determined to foreclose on what they perceived to be collateral for their loan: Mexico. They believed (erroneously, as it turned out), that the California gold vein extended into Mexico, and that riches were to be had. Besides, reasoned the French, a restored colonial presence in the Americas was very desirable.

The French lost about half their troops to yellow fever at Vera Cruz, and those who continued had to pass through what was then the sleepy town of Pueblo, on their way to the Capital. Battle was joined in Pueblo on the 5th of May (Cinco de Mayo), 1862, and in a stunning upset, the French military was routed by the native population. France had not, at that time, lost a battle since Waterloo. In a different environment, the U.S. would likely have been involved, as French intentions in the Americas ran directly afoul of the Monroe Doctrine. But in 1862, Abe Lincoln’s attentions were somewhat diverted, and Benito Juarez could expect no support from his neighbors to the north.

After the Battle of Pueblo, the French withdrew but regrouped, and within about a year, had prevailed in Mexico. They installed the Emperor Maximillian, an Austrian Hapsburg “also-ran” on the throne. The Emperor was backed by Napoleon III, as well as the Conservative forces in Mexico. He proved to be a disappointment to them, as he was not their puppet, and had some rather progressive ideas. In any case, his reign was to be short-lived. After the U.S. Civil War, Ulysses Grant awakened to the threat of a French presence in Mexico and menacingly massed troops on the Mexican border. Napoleon III, unwilling to take on the U.S., withdrew his troops, who ran back to France with their tails between their legs, leaving poor old Maximillian hanging out to dry. Hapsburg nobleman that he was, however, he stuck it out until he was captured and ultimately (and over the objections of nearly everyone), executed by Benito Juarez.

Back to Cinco de Mayo, though. It represents the opening salvo in Mexico’s battle of outright refusal to submit to foreign domination.

This is precisely why Yom Ha’atzma’ut is such a big deal for Israel and the Jewish People. It is not just about Statehood. Rather, it represents the first time in over 2000 years that the land has been governed, truly, by its inhabitants, and not by a foreign power. The First Temple was sacked in 586 B.C.E. Babylonian hegemony gave way to Persian Rule (benevolent thought it might have been). This was followed by Alexander the Great, the Greco-Syrian Empire, the Romans, various Muslim Empires, the Crusaders from Europe, Mamalukes, Ottoman Turks and finally, the British, as representative of the League of Nations Mandate. Did I leave anyone out? Probably.

Only on Yom Ha’atzma’ut did the Jewish People, once again, become masters of their own fate and have been able to say, since that time: we will no longer be under anyone’s boot heel. Those Jews, myself included, who live in the Diaspora, do so by choice. There is, however, a place in this world where the Jewish People are “in charge,” and not under the rule of a foreign power. This is the legacy, also, of Cinco de Mayo. It is worh celebrating.

Coronas for Everyone!


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