CINCO DE MAYO:
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
What is Cinco de Mayo? Mexican Independence Day? Thatís what most people think. That is even what is taught in some US schools. But September 16, the true date of independence for Mexico, is not celebrated in other countries. What makes May 5 so special?
Well, there is the ever-popular excuse for a festival. But besides that, it is the anniversary of Mexicoís victory at Puebla against an army of French invaders. The anonymous citizens of Mexico were still drained by their recent War of Reform against their own wealthy conservative class; but Puebla gave them the heart to keep fighting for another five years, until the invaders were driven out completely. Puebla told them they could win. Happiness is contagious.
It was in the 1860s that France invaded Mexico and attempted to put Archduke Maximilian of the Hapsburg family on the throne. I've read about this before from the European point of view -- this one is from the Mexican. It follows many threads in a manner that reminds me somewhat of Collins & LaPierre's popular histories. Those threads lead into the United States, where there was a civil war going on; to the court of the French Emperor Napoleon III, who saw an opportunity to put constraints on a growing United States; to Austria, where that Emperorís hapless brother was being offered a puppet throne.
Personal memoirs and letters have enabled author Donald W. Miles to tell us also the stories of people we may never have heard of, whose actions influenced history. An ex-Confederate officer leads a band of his defeated brethren south to fight for someone, he isnít sure who yet, and decisively proves his honor. A circus bareback rider marries a prince and tries to save an Emperor. These and other stories contribute another level of human interest among the fatally egotistical generals and bloodthirsty guerilla fighters whose actions have a more obvious effect on the outcome.
In spite of being an obvious supporter of Mexican nationhood, Miles shows us the human element of his characters from both continents. Maximilian and Charlotte are drawn with sympathy, both tragic figures in their different ways. President Juarez, winning one war and quickly pitchforked into another, garners respect for his statesmanship; one could complain of the torture inflicted by his fighters, but then one would have to say the same about both sides.
Through his wife's Mexican family, Donald Miles gained access to restricted sources of information and used it well. The style is pacey, flowing, and dramatic. His frequent section headers are colorful and often funny. CINCO DE MAYO is an enjoyable read for history buffs, no matter what your favorite nation or time is.
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