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El Aire del Valle

On the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of Cinco de Mayo – A not so brief introduction:

Why would anyone celebrate Cinco de Mayo at all?  Why don’t they celebrate it in Mexico but we celebrate it in the Southwestern United States?  These are as good questions as to what Cinco de Mayo is really about.  Let me offer a brief synopsis and a few comment on this the 150th anniversary of the May 5, 1862 battle of Puebla – possibly one of the most important battles of the North American Continent.

On May 5, 1862 the United States of America was in the middle of the Civil War (1861-1865).  That war as we well know was between the Northern Slave-Free states and the Southern Confederacy.  It was only in part over slavery, it was only in part over states-rights.  This is not at issue, what is at issue is that a major war had descended upon the American Union and the other world powers took advantage of this.  One of those world powers was the Empire of France – led then by Napoleon III (April 20, 1808 – January 9, 1873).  It is quite possible that the French never forgive themselves for selling the Louisiana Territories – and that that was the real reason they supported the Southern Confederacy – but probably the most powerful reason was that the State of Louisiana was in the Southern Confederacy. 

The French Empire had come into possession of Mexico through shady means and with the explicit purpose of thwarting the United States continental ambitions.  They wished to supply the Southern Confederacy in their war against the North.  To do so they needed access to Mexico.  What stood between them and Mexico was the 33 year old General Ingacio Zaragoza (March 24, 1829 – September 8, 1862).  Why would Zaragoza be opposed to the French?  There are many strong reasons – but here is one – Texas was in the Southern Confederacy – and Texas had once been Mexico – and Zaragoza never forgot that.  The Southern Confederacy was no friend of the Mexicans as long as Texas was a part of it.

The only place General Ingacio Zaragoza could stop the French forces was in the heavily fortified city of Peubla in a valley in the middle of Mexico.  He was outnumbered.  His forces were not well trained.  The forts defending the road to Puebla were Loredo and Guadalupe, smaller and less defensible.  In heavy rain and mud his hungry and tired soldiers dug the fortifications and then waited.  The French attacked.  They were certain they would win.  Zaragoza had 4000 to 4500 men, and it is possible that the French had many more than the 6000 to 6500 listed.  Charles de Lorencez (May 23, 1814 –July 16, 1892) the French General was arrogant and confident that he could win, he had little respect for the Mexicans.  The battle is full of details of mistakes and charges and missed chances all listed by the survivors and described by the officers – but the essential facts are of four parts, and these explain the significance of Cinco de Mayo and why we in the United States should celebrate this as one of our own major holidays.

The first is that General Ingacio Zaragoza called for assistance to the native Indian tribes in the area, most notably to the Zacapoaxtli  and the Xochiapulco who came armed mostly with swords and machetes to fight the French.  If ever there was popular native resistance, this was it.  The second was the decisive appearance of Porfirio Díaz (September 15, 1830 – July 2, 1915) and his cavalry to cement the victory of the Mexicans at Puebla.  Porfirio Díaz would later become the President of Mexico, he succeed the Habsburg Emperor of Mexico and French puppet of Napoleon III, the very short lived Emperor Maximillian I (July 6, 1832 – June 19, 1867) who was so unceremoniously executed in 1867 – coincidently the same year Charles de Lorencez contracted yellow fever and left Mexico back home for France with his tail between his legs.  The third reason follows from this complication, that Porfirio Díaz was himself abolished and exiled by the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) – this makes modern political Mexicans not too fond of celebrating a victory Díaz participated in.  But it is the last, and fourth reason why we as Americans should celebrate Cinco de Mayo. 

The battle of Puebla cost the French dearly – it could be argued that it contributed to their defeat in holding on to Mexico – even though they scored major victories in the year after.  It is true that Cinco de Mayo is not a victory for Mexican independence, but it is a major victory on the way to Mexican independence no matter what the anti-Porfirio Díaz modern day Mexcan nationalist have to say.  Neither Porfirio Díaz nor General Ingacio Zaragoza were happy with the loss of the Mexican-American war (April 25, 1846 – February 2, 1848) but they were far more unhappy with the French and of course with the greatest beneficiaries of the Mexican-American war – the Southern Confederacy – because they gained Texas.  By winning at Puebla – General Ingacio Zaragoza, Porfirio Díaz and the brave machete wielding Zacapoaxtli and Xochiapulco warriors denied the Southern Confederacy much needed French munitions for close to a year – and thus confirmed Napoleon III’s worst European nightmare that if unchecked the United States of America would become a major global power to rival any of the empires in Europe.  For this reason alone – Cinco de Mayo is truly an American holiday – for we are its greatest beneficiaries – and we owe it all to the Mexicans and their 33 year old bespectacled General Ingacio Zaragoza.


 El Aire del Valle (The Air of the Valley)

On the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of Cinco de Mayo

El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla…
…el aire del valle temblaba con orgullo

It rained when they dug the fortifications at Guadalupe, Loreto and Pueblo
Far away from my Los Angeles of today, in space and in time
Badly wounded men, tired, hungry and almost out of hope
They dug in the mud, dug and shrugged their shoulders, for such is life
The world was at war again or so said the voice of Ehécatl
And the dead gods were never wrong even if the priests said otherwise 

El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla…
… el aire del valle temblaba con un miedo

If the streets had no names, it would still be the land, my land
If the hills had no name, they would still be the rocks, my rocks
If the city was silent, the angels would still laugh at dawn, over the hills
La Brea – I would cry black tears if you were not my dark soul mate
Verdugo – is there a treasure buried in your heart? Is it shaped like a jaguar’s?
Los Angeles – I am your captive lover, I bathe in the shadow of your palm trees

El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla…
… el aire del valle temblaba con un miedo

Mexico calls – a collect call from a pay phone in a brown neighborhood
Where the streets have the same names, and all the hills are El Cerrito
Where the church sits in the heart of every hardened soul, solid, sane
And the angel holds up the Virgin bathed in sunlight, melancholy, demure
I kneel at the Guadalupe altar each Sunday and say “mi corazón es Tuyo”
She smiles, I can cross myself in peace and walk the streets in harmony

El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla…
… el aire del valle temblaba con un miedo

Did the French think Mexicans were made of straw, like scarecrows?  
The Zacapoaxtlans and Xochiapulcoans brought only machetes, no guns
General Ignacio Zaragoza, were you tired at the end of that day?
The revolutionaries who would come later were not fond of paz porfiriana
Even if Porfirio Díaz saved the day, a volunteer of Mexican ideals

But what does it matter who was cheered and who died, the crows always feast

El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla…
… el aire del valle temblaba con un miedo

The Mariachi band is playing a lively tune, a brown eyed girl with black hair dances
Her dress is red and gold, her lips like red pepper burn as she loves me
The calaveras are still all in the ground, for it is not autumn yet
Someone opens a bottle of tequila, not the fake stuff, but clear from Los Altos
“Hola poeta polaco! Mujeres calientes, bebidas frías!” And the music doesn’t stop
“Viva Cinco de Mayo!” I yell emptying the glass, I am home among my nation.

El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla…
… el aire del valle temblaba de amor.


A not so minor postscript.

I shared this poem with a close friend of mine who also happens to be a Cinematographer and Film Director: Maria Luz Sanchez who is Mexican and who will not mind being quoted in this postscript; her remarks have bearing on Cinco de Mayo.

“Thank you Konrad, You just reminded me of my days in elementary school when we were learning about “La Batalla de Puebla” along with all the people who participated like Benito Juarez, Ignacio Zaragoza, and of course the indigenous people. It was so outrageous that countries like England, France and Spain at the time were sucking the blood of Mexico with the “Debt,” when the people were extremely poor and not even their basic needs were met. Only the French dared to invade and they did it, in spite of the resistance. Then Porfirio Diaz became a dictator for another 35 years keeping the country in a dark cloud.

“I guess the people of the time, could only describe their anguish…

“When I was little I used to ask myself, how is that Mexico owed so much money? I grew up hearing about the debt of Mexico that was something that at the time I didn’t understand. The Mexican people have resisted for centuries the abuse of foreign countries and politicians, today they are trying to resist the abuse of the 1%, the inequality, the perpetuated corruption of politicians, the organized crime, and the instability of the country.

“I visited the place where the battle took place and it seemed to me like you can sense all those souls, all those who lost their lives there, still lost on their cause. It is an amazing place… There are so many aspects of this battle and the complexity that go beyond what books can describe. Thank you for the poem.”

Maria Luz Sanchez touches on several important points.  One of them is the Mexican debt, the other the issue of Porfirio Diaz and the last is the issue of the location of the battle itself. 

The Battle of the Puebla took place in the heart of Mexico, the very soul of the Mexican nation, and can be viewed in a way as a delayed response to the Mexican-American War which Mexico lost, and possibly even to the defeat during the Spanish conquest. This would not have been lost on the indigenous people who helped General Ingacio Zaragoza nor on the General himself.  When Maria Luz says “still lost on their cause” this is what Mexicans feel in their hearts.  The cause may be lost still, but their souls fight on.  In fact the dead are very much alive in the hearts and minds of the Mexicans.

The Mexican debt issue played well into the hands of foreign manipulators and was exploited by all the world powers to keep Mexico under boot.  It was a well played card by the adversaries of Mexico, and it took more than a century to lift the shadow.  Porfirio Diaz plays into this.  His appearance at the end of the battle is decisive but his actions after the battle put him according to a great number of Mexicans on the wrong side of history.  He exploits the expulsion of the Europeans to become dictator of the country.  His reign is considered to be a peaceful one, but it certainly wasn’t a free one.  His major role in the Battle of the Puebla casts a shadow on all of Cinco de Mayo and it may help explain why post-revolutionary Mexicans of the 20th century don’t celebrate the holiday in Mexico as much as their Northern brothers on this side of the American border do.  This is misplaced resentment.  Cinco de Mayo may be in fact overdue for a re-examination of Porfirio Diaz.  It unites all Mexicans, those in Mexico and those who have been American citizens for many Generations and are merely of Mexican descent.  The person around whom Cinco de Mayo should be focused is General Ingacio Zaragoza – at least during the days that led up to the Battle of Puebla and immediately after.  General Ingacio Zaragoza exemplifies then all that is best and most noble and admirable about the Mexicans: their courage, simplicity, sense of unity with the land and its ancient aboriginal people, and a strong sense of humility and fraternity.  You can see this on display in the difference in fighting and command styles between General Ingacio Zaragoza and the  far more experienced and worldly French and it can best be illustrated with a few simple quotes which reveal a vast difference of world views.

Before the battle the French General Charles de Lorencez expressed the following sentiment:  “We are so superior to the Mexicans in organization, discipline, race, morale and refinement of sensibilities, that from this moment, in command of our 6,000 brave soldiers, I am the master of Mexico.”

Upon hearing this General Ingacio Zaragoza is reported to have said to his troops: “Our enemies may be the world’s first citizens, but you are Mexico’s first sons and they want to wrest your homeland from you.”

During the battle General Ingacio Zaragoza remarked that “the French fight well, but our soldiers are better at killing,” and concluded after the battle famously: “Las tropas francesas se portaron con valor en el combate y su jefe con torpeza.” (The French troops behaved with courage under fire, even if their leaders are clumsy hotheads.” There was no such acknowledgment from the French regarding their loss to the Mexicans who treated Charles de Lorencez’s defeat as some sort of fluke and aberration and sent him massive reinforcements which he put to good use.  Yet the simplicity of the Mexican approach, and its quiet fortitude can be illustrated in General Ingacio Zaragoza’s quote at winning the battle.  He sent off a single line dispatch stating the following:

“Las armas nacionales se han cubierto de Gloria” (The national arms have been covered with glory).

One has to conclude that the French lost in part due to their arrogance.  One has to also conclude that the Mexicans won because they were in point of fact a superior nation.

May 4-5, 2012 – Konrad Tademar

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