Independence Day

It was May 5, 1977. My husband and I had just arrived in the United States, and our-next door neighbors were ready to celebrate what they thought was Mexico's independence day. There was a pitcher of margaritas, chips and salsa. On top of the table in the patio of their house were two small flags--one Mexican, the other American.

We thanked them, drank the margaritas, ate the chips with the salsa, and then broke their hearts with the bad news. We just had to tell them Cinco de Mayo is not the date when Mexican independence day is celebrated. That takes place on September 15.

They were disappointed, and we felt responsible. We knew we had to do something about it. To make the true story about Cinco de Mayo interesting, we volunteered a second pitcher of margaritas, more chips and salsa, put some Mexican music on in the background, and briefly explained what Cinco de Mayo represented.

In 1861, Mexico was ruined economically after a prolonged and devastating war of independence against the Spanish and the loss of more than half of its territory to the United States. Forced by circumstances, Mexican president Benito Juarez suspended payments on the foreign debt. French emperor Napoleon III took advantage of the situation to impose a French military presence in Mexico to help counterbalance the rising power of the United States, which was engaged in a civil war. Soon the powerful French army landed in the port of Veracruz and the journey toward the capital began in earnest, as French troops approached Puebla.

On May 5, 1862, 6,000 well-trained French soldiers fought against fewer than 4,000 Mexican irregular troops. The Mexican soldiers, described by a French intelligence report as in a state of disorganization, gathered just outside Puebla. By sunset, the Mexican army had defeated the French army and forced it to withdraw.

Victory, however, did not last long. One year later, French troops occupied Mexico City, and it was not until 1867 that...