Cinco de Mayo – the holiday that’s widely celebrated in the U.S. yet no one really knows why. Here’s a bit of history and a movie review that I mentioned in How to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo that helped me appreciate this celebration.
In 1861, Mexico’s President, Benito Juarez took office and not without financial debt to European countries Spain, Britain and France. The three countries each sent forces to Veracuz, Mexico to settle the debt. At the convention of La Soledad, they were in agreement to handle affairs peacefully. However, French Emperor Napoleon III insisted on conquering Mexico as part of his empire-building plan which was to include a move north to assist the U.S. Confederate army.
Part of the French army’s grand plan was to defeat a small army of Mexican soldiers and countrymen at Fort Guadalupe in Puebla en route to Mexico City. However, General Ignacio Zaragoza and his army at Fort Guadalupe defeated the French army in a remarkable battle. It is estimated that Zaragoza’s army consisted of 2,000 men and the French army was well over 6,000 men. This became to be known as the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. While this battle did not drive the French army out of Mexico, it did revive the Mexican forces to resist the French army. Napoleon’s plan did not succeed in Mexico therefore, they did not march in to the U.S. to lend a hand to the Confederate army which might have changed the direction of the American Civil War. The French forces were removed from Mexico six years later, in part thanks to support from the U.S.
The Battle of Puebla was an unlikely victory for Zaragoza and his men. Because of this, the state of Puebla continues to celebrate on May 5th (cinco de mayo) as remembrance and to honor the soldiers and countrymen who fought and won this battle. In the U.S., Mexican-Americans tend to celebrate Mexican heritage and culture on Cinco de Mayo. Note: Mexico’s Independence Day was 52 years prior on September 16, 1810. That’s Diez y Seis.
CINCO DE MAYO LA BATALLA starts with the arrival of the European forces at Veracruz. Immediately, you learn the fragile state Mexico finds itself. It follows both the French army and the Mexican army with enough back story to understand where they will meet and the significance of that battle. This war movie is rated R which is unfortunate because this would make a great history film for students. The violence didn’t bother me too much until the thick of the battle and it became a bit more gruesome.
The subplot of Juan, a young Mexican soldier, kept me interested throughout the movie. He starts out as an eager soldier but quickly tires of the defeat that is anticipated for his troop by the French army. Out of fear and frustration, he chooses to leave the army with his love interest by his side. The love story does not develop or grasp the audience’s attention however.
After the French army kills his long-time friend who came to retrieve Juan, he decides to return to his troop and fight in battle at Puebla. Juan represents the Mexicanos who loved their country but were already filled with defeat. Juan’s uncertainty is a contrast to the inevitable approaching battle at Puebla between two armies led by two opposing generals who both insist on victory.
Just before the battle, General Zaragoza addresses the Mexican army with a powerful monologue that addresses who and what Juan represents and gives the exact reasons why they must fight to the death for Mexico. It is the pivotal point in which the meek Mexican army turns in to an exterminating force. (Watch the clip below)
This movie is in Spanish. I watched it with English subtitles. Even without the subtitles, the story line would be easy to follow because the acting and costume design makes it clear as to which army represents which country, who the leaders are and who the villains are. General Zaragoza is the clear hero of the movie. He is stern, decisive and brave. The French General Lorencez is the villain as his character is calculating, malicious and arrogant. Both characters are well written and played.
As far as war movies go, I’d put this one up there with The Patriot. I obviously knew what the ending of the movie was going to be but the battle scenes had me captivated. Great action. Great story line. Again, I recommend it as a history lesson but not a boring one at all.
“Mexicans! Like you, I have been there. And I have been afraid to die at the hands of the invader. But I am sick of those Mexicans who, because of fear and because they, stupidly, feel inferior think victory is impossible. Today, we have to change that goddamned defeatism that chases and humiliates us as a nation.
This day you will face an army that regards itself as unbeatable. They do because they have never faced brave Mexicans … warlike Mexicans! Like our ancestors. Like all the people gathered here today. This country has shed a lot of blood in wars since its independence. The rich against the poor , liberals against conservatives, peasants, mixed race, foreigners.
Today, you have the opportunity of bringing Mexico together! Don’t worry about fighting a nation of warriors! Because we are warriors, too! And we are brave! But above all, we are free men and free men know no fear and recognize no rival.
Today, este cinco de Mayo, the French will respect the Mexican eagle and they will look up to this flag from a puddle of their own blood!
Long live Mexico. Long live a free Mexico! ¡Viva Mexico pero Viva Mexico libre!”
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