On Cinco de Mayo 1862 at Puebla, in southeastern Mexico, a conquest army of 6,000 seasoned French soldiers funded by Emperor Napoleon III of France, and marching at behest of Archduke Maximilian of Austria, met 4,000 Mexican defenders who were mostly last minute recruits from the barrios of Puebla. The invaders were headed for Mexico City 60 miles away to install Maximilian Emperor of Mexico. They expected little resistance. French General Charles Ferdinande de Lorencez had declared, upon landing of his troops at the port of Veracruz, that because Mexicans were merely “bloodthirsty half-castes who united the vices of the white man with the savageness of the Indian... We are so superior to the Mexicans in race, in organization, in discipline, (and) in morality...that, at the head of 6,000 soldiers, I am already master of Mexico.”
The rag tag Mexican forces routed the French invaders, who slunk back to Veracruz and did not venture inland again till March of the following year, by which time they had amassed 30,000 troops. There was strong symbolism in Mexico in May 1862 in laborers and peasants defeating the technologically superior, militarily superior, seasoned troops from Europe. The nation had just emerged from a long civil/class war and the French brought with them a cadre of supporters of the conservative losing side that fed the French notions of Mexico being a land of “Chinacos.” Definitions of Chinaco include: a runaway, a person of no social grace, lower class Indian who had left the homeland, a mixed race person with African heritage, a half Indian/half African, a robber, a slave, a guerrilla, a creature of the night, a bat, a bent twig, a person with multiple personalities, and more. The Juaristas proudly adopted the term. And today the lead definition of Chinaco in the dictionaries is a fighter for the “Reform,” i.e., the liberal cause in the civil war, and the fight against the French that was led by led by pure-Indigenous President Benito Juarez. A Juarezista culture magazine was titled Chinaco, and in it were poems and essays to the glory of the nation and its “Chinacos.” A poem by the magazine’s editor Guillermo Prieto had the following lines:
In that you are a Mister
I am a Chinaco.
In the days leading to May 5, 1862, recruitment among the “Chinacos” of Puebla was led by the frail, spectacled, seminary trained 33-year-old General Ignacio Zaragoza, who was of mixed race with substantial Texas Indian blood, and who Juarez picked for the task because of oratory abilities in behalf of the “Reform.” Central to Juarez’s “Reform” ideology was belief in democracy, as he displayed in a letter to a British supporter of the Mexican fight against the French imperialists. “Believing as I do that progress is part of the human condition, I hope that the future will be, of necessity, one of democracy, and each day I have more faith in the republican institutions of the American world, and that they will be extended to the unfortunate people of Europe who are still held down under the weight of their monarchy and aristocracy.”
While we don’t know exactly what Zaragoza said in his recruitment, we can assume something of the above, and probably mention that Maximilian was believed intent on a coalition with slave owners in the U.S. Confederacy then at war with the Union army. Mexico had abolished slavery and had declared for racial equality since its 1821 independence war peace plan of Iguala, which stated, “All inhabitants of New Spain, without distinction to their being Europeans, Africans or Indians are citizens ... with the option to seek all employment according to their merits and virtues.”
On Cinco de Mayo the Poblanos, as Pueblans were known, repulsed repeated charges of the French troops. The defenders also withstood barrages from French canons, and while there were cannons in the two forts at Puebla, the Mexican side lacked artillery experts. The defenders compensated for their weaknesses with resourcefulness. A near thousand head of cattle had been gathered from nearby ranchos, and when the French charged up the steep hill toward Puebla, the cattle were stampeded into their ranks. The French cavalry was ready to charge the Mexican lines and create panic; to draw them off, General Zaragoza sent his cavalry of Zapotecan Indians from Oaxaca on an attack from the side against the French horsemen. The Zapotecans faked a panic and fled, and laughing French rode after them. A Hollywood version of cowboys and Indians seemed in the offing, but the Zapotecans turned and attacked. The French didn’t know how to handle the new script and they were cut to pieces.
Armed with the spirit of democracy and equality the defenders of the nation sent the French troops home from their Mexican Vietnam/Iraq in 1867. French Emperor Napoleon III embroiled his soldiers in a new adventure in 1870, a war with Germany. A subsequent uprising created the anarcho-communist Paris Commune, in which there were enough disgruntled soldiers for the conservative French press to blame the revolt upon the infection of revolutionary spirit from Mexico. That “outside agitator” accusations would be leveled on Mexico would seem to prove Juárez's point that in that era of the famed Cinco de Mayo, his country represented the vanguard for world progress.