Food · France · Mexico

Cinco de Mayo: Resisting Imperialism and the French Legacy

When the United States invaded Mexico in 1846 much of the country was divided not just between opposing political camps but also between different regional interests due to a lack of a “Mexican identity”. There was no common sense of brotherhood or patriotism despite several decades of independence. Yet the war against a common enemy helped to shape Mexican nationalism, one not built on empire building like the great powers of the time, but rather on resistance and on defending itself. By 1862 when the French launched a punitive expedition to support Mexican conservatives and install a Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico, a sense of nation had already developed. The French would come to find that Mexico would not fall quickly.


Of course Mexico and France were not always enemies, in fact it was the ideas of great French thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau that helped to shape Mexico’s steps towards independence. The new Bourbon rulers of Spain (with their origins in France) that came to power after the end of Hapsburg rule in the 18th century instituted many Enlightenment ideas in the colonies; it was many liberal thinkers that grew up with these reforms that would lead the war against Spain. Napoleon‘s overthrow of the Spanish king during his Iberian campaign further pushed revolutionaries to call for a break with Spain once and for all.

Almost a century after the start of liberal reforms, Mexico was now independent but independence brought its own issues. The Battle of Puebla began as a result of Mexico defaulting on its debts due to a decade of civil war, culminating in the 1857 War of Reform and victory of the liberal President Benito Juarez over an alliance of monarchists and conservatives. Just five years later France sent a punitive expedition of 6,500 that was defeated by an under-supplied, hastily formed militia of peasants and irregular soldiers. By the cunning of military leaders such as General Ignacio Zaragosa and Porfirio Diaz, the battle was won despite the Mexican Army being almost half the size of the French one. This symbolic victory served as an inspiration for future battles.

In the end France won, for a time, instituting Maximilian I von Hapsburg as the Second Mexican Emperor but their victory was short lived. While Mexico City fell to the monarchists and their European allies, Mexico refused to surrender to the absolute surprise of the Europeans who were used to winning wars by capturing capital cities. Rallied under exiled President Benito Juarez, pro-republic forces from Mexico’s northern states would launch a guerilla campaign against Napoleon III‘s French armies. Finally under pressure of the United States now freed up after the U.S. Civil War and with growing tension in Europe as Germany began to unify, France abandoned Mexico leading to the restoration of the Mexican Republic.

Maximilian von Hapsburg, Emperor of Mexico

French influence in Mexico was enormous despite the brief 5 years of war. It was during this time that Amérique latine or Latinoamerica (Latin America) was first coined as a way of Napoleon III harking back to the Romans through his ambitions of a Latin Empire in the Americas; in time the name became more and more common, breaking with the old name of Hispanoamerica (Spanish America) with its ties to the crumbling Spanish Empire.

Mexico saw a period of tremendous European immigration, especially from France and Austria leading to a mixing and adoption of traditions. To this day there are many blonde and blue eyed Mexicans in the mountains and hills where many of these new arrivals decided to settle. Iconic foods that many of  us grew up with such as pan dulce, bolillos and tortas can trace their roots to French baking techniques though over time Mexicans have put their own flair and skill in the intricate designs of our breads.

The baguette-inspired bolillo has become authentically linked with Mexico.

It is said that the word mariachi (Musical bands that play folk music) derives from the French word, marriage, a result of the answer given to some French soldiers who in that sad time of the French Intervention witnessed a marriage of some rancheros (ranchers) and a rustic band of musicians playing their lively tunes. The interpreter is said to have responded “C’est un mariage” (it’s a wedding) when asked and ever since then, the French continued to call them “mariachi“, not just at weddings, but also when referring to town bands. With the arrival of immigrants came new instruments such as the accordion from the Germans and Austrians and musical styles suck as polka and waltz were incorporated to Mexican styles that developed into  música norteña and corridos.


Mexican society and architecture after 1867 would transform very quickly. Factories, railroads, European style avenues and fashion were increasingly adopted. In the process the countryside, the indigenous and the poor would be left behind during what would later be know as the Porfiriato but that my friends, that’s a story for another day.

Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s independence day, it is not even in fact all that celebrated outside of the state of Puebla. Indeed it probably is more important to the U.S. given that the victory of Mexican patriots stalled Napoleon III‘s ambitions to support the Confederate States in the U.S. Civil War. Of course most people in the U.S. don’t know that nor do they recognize the contribution of Mexico’s people to their own nation’s survival. Much like St. Patrick’s Day, it serves merely as an excuse to drink but perhaps it is time that some important lessons were learned.


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