When I realized Cinco de Mayo falls on a Saturday this year, I thought it would be fun to do a Cinco de Mayo-themed workout. The obvious choice was to do a workout where the rounds and reps corresponded with the date commemorated. I quickly realized I didn’t know the year of the original event – and I also had no idea what the original event was or why we even celebrate it in the first place!
So I turned to the internet and started digging.
I’ll be the first to assert I am not a historian, and my research consisted of Googling variations of “Cinco de Mayo,” “Cinco de Mayo history,” then later “Cinco de Mayo France cotton” (you’re probably thinking, ‘what do France and cotton have to do with Cinco de Mayo,’ amirite?! Don’t worry, you’re about to find out). This post does not contain proper academic citations, though I will link all my sources at the end (and yes, my sources include Wikipedia). My goal here is basic information, not academic rigor. I hope you will become interested enough to do your own research and learn more.
Battle of Puebla
Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican victory over the invading French army at the Battle of Puebla, which took place on May 5, 1862. The French army had not been defeated for 50-ish years, they outnumbered the Mexicans, and were better equipped. They were heavily favored to win. However, the Mexican forces managed to fend them off and win the battle. This victory by the underdog helped instill a sense of national unity, which was especially important so soon after the Mexican civil war (the Reform War, 1858-61).
Why were the French in Mexico in the first place?
First, the Mexican government was broke after fighting the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and then the Reform War in close succession. In an effort to get the country’s finances in order, the Mexican president halted foreign debt payments for two years. This angered Mexico’s creditors, and Britain, Spain, and France sent armed forces to Mexico to demand payment. Britain and Spain quickly left after negotiations, but France remained.
At the same time, the US Civil War was raging. Cotton was a valuable commodity to which France, among other actors, wanted access. However, the Union had blockaded the Confederacy. Unable to export cotton through their ports, they attempted to negotiate with Mexico to establish a trade route through Mexico to Europe, which would have provided them financial relief and given France access to the cotton. But Mexico refused the request.
In doing so, Mexico angered both the Confederacy and France. At the same time, President Lincoln and the Mexican President, Benito Juarez, enjoyed a cordial relationship based on shared ideals. So – at least regarding this issue – Mexico and the Union (the North) were aligned together against France and the Confederacy.
If Mexico had allowed the overland trade route, that would have provided the Confederacy with a stream of income (through exporting cotton) that would have given them more resources to continue fighting the North. Without the economic impact of a successful Union blockade, the Confederacy would have stood a greater chance of winning the Civil War. By saying no, Mexico denied this funding and contributed to the Union’s victory over the Confederacy.
Napoleon III (not THE Napoleon, but one of his successors) ruled France at the time of the Battle of Puebla. The year after the French defeat, he sent 30,000 more soldiers to Mexico and emerged victorious in the Second Battle of Puebla on May 17, 1863. Then his soldiers captured Mexico City and installed their own ruler, Maximilian I. However, this victory was short-lived. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, the American government was able to provide more assistance to Mexico against the French. Napoleon began retreating from Mexico in 1866, and Benito Juarez reestablished his government in Mexico City on June 5, 1867.
Cinco de Mayo Celebrations
Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in Puebla, but overall has become a much bigger celebration in the United States than in Mexico. It started to gain prominence in the 1940s during the rise of the Chicano Movement, which addressed Mexican-American civil rights as well as negative ethnic stereotypes. In the 1980s, advertisers began to use Cinco de Mayo as a means to promote the sale of beer, tequila, and other products.
Cinco de Mayo is often – and erroneously – believed to be Mexico’s Independence Day. Mexico’s Independence Day is celebrated on September 16th. It commemorates the “Cry of Dolores,” the call to arms that sparked the Mexican War of Independence on September 16, 1810. Independence itself was not achieved until 1821.
And this has what to do with CrossFit?
CrossFit creates hero WODs to commemorate soldiers and first responders who have died in the line of duty. We can do hero WODs just to get a good workout, but ideally we also inquire further and learn about their lives and deaths. Doing so can help us link our efforts in the gym to something beyond ourselves. It helps CrossFit become not just about fitness, but about who we are as people – strong, able to withstand hardship, and attentive to THE GOOD, not just how we feel in a given moment. (What is THE GOOD in CrossFit? Striving for excellence and doing your best even when no one is watching (even when you’re really frickin’ tired and that wall ball was close enough…wasn’t it?). What is THE GOOD in life? Striving for excellence and doing your best even when no one is watching. Are these two things related? I think yes.)
Cinco de Mayo celebrates the victory of an underdog against the aggression of an invading army. It celebrates national cohesion and banding together in the face of adversity. We can do hero WODs without thinking about the lives of the men and women behind the names. We can celebrate Cinco de Mayo without knowing what it means. But maybe we will gain something intangible if we inquire further and learn about the why behind the what we are doing.
In no particular order:
Americans’ Relationship With Cinco De Mayo: It’s Complicated
Cinco de Mayo and its Link to African People
America vs. Mexico: Cinco de Mayo (Facebook Video)
Why Mexico Loved Lincoln
Lincoln’s Mexican Visitor
Battle of Puebla (Wikipedia)
Cinco de Mayo (Wikipedia)
The History of Cinco de Mayo
Chicano Movement (Wikipedia)
Cry of Dolores (Wikipedia)
Mexico’s Independence Day – September 16