My wife Lupita and I were celebrating Cinco de Mayo at home Tuesday. We had a couple – or so – margaritas in honor of General Zaragoza’s victory at the Battle of Puebla. Lupita said, “I wonder if Texans know what they’re celebrating when they party on Cinco de Mayo.”
She’s originally from Mexico and, though she knows the history well, she also knows that most Mexicans outside of Puebla don’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo as much as people do in Texas.
“I think many people treat it like they do St. Patrick’s Day, a fun theme party of dressing green, drinking green – a good reason to party without knowing much about the real St. Patrick,” she said. “To many, Cinco de Mayo is Mexican food, margaritas and tequila shots, and I’m totally down for that, but I bet some Texans would be surprised to know that General Zaragoza was a Texan, and 500 of the men at the battle were Tejanos.”
Now on a mission, she downed her margarita and whipped out her cell to Google it right quick.
“Ah ha, mira, right as usual.”
She showed me a survey that said only one in ten Americans know Cinco de Mayo’s true meaning: 39% think it’s Mexican Independence Day – it isn’t, 26% say it’s a celebration of Mexican culture and 13% of the exceptionally honest say it’s a good reason to drink. Most planned to celebrate by eating Mexican food, drinking margaritas or Mexican beer or having a Cinco de Mayo party at home.
Interesting. I was more focused on the Texas connection myself. I was not surprised by the poor familiarity with the meaning of the date, or troubled by the faux association of Cinco de Mayo with “Three Amigos” and their saving of Santo Poco from El Guapo. People gotta have fun.
I knew about General Zaragoza being a Texan, but I didn’t know how deep his Texas roots went until I did some digging – pun thoroughly intended. He was born in Goliad in 1829, when Texas was part of Mexico, and only a few years before Texas Independence. If we look at his full name, Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, we learn something. That last name, Seguin, was his mother’s name. She was from San Antonio and a cousin of Juan Seguin who fought Santa Anna in the Texas Revolution and for whom the city of Seguin is named. Ignacio’s father owned 11 leagues of land along the Red River, or about 50,000 acres, according to the Texas Land Office. He bought it for 100 pesos a league. That’s mind-blowing. You couldn’t even buy a square foot of that land today for 100 pesos. All this proves General Zaragoza’s Texas bonafides.
When Ignacio was in his early twenties, he joined the revolutionary army of Benito Juárez and eventually led an army of volunteers in defeating Santa Anna. Yes, that same Santa Anna. Zaragoza’s victory effectively removed Santa Anna as dictator of Mexico. That’s another reason we should recognize Zaragoza. Like all good Texans, he despised Santa Anna and wanted him dead so democracy could live. It is astonishing that Santa Anna was in power again 20 years after his humiliating loss at San Jacinto. But that man had more political lives than a cat. He was president of Mexico 11 times. No one man ever failed so often and so badly and still managed to claw his way back into power as Santa Anna did.
Now, on to Puebla. The French, under Napoleon III, wanted to make Mexico their own colony in the Americas. They sent a large force of crack troops – 8,000 men – to take Mexico by storm. Juarez sent General Zaragoza to Puebla to defend Mexico from the Imperialist Invasion. This was Mexico’s San Jacinto moment. Zaragoza had half as many men as the French army. He was definitely the underdog in this fight and was expected to lose badly. The French army’s commander had the same haughty attitude that Santa Anna had about the Texans. He saw them as riffraff, as commoners, low-bred men without discipline. The French commander, Ferdinand Letrille, wrote that the Mexicans he faced “were of a lower race, poorly organized, poorly disciplined, of low morals” and in a uniquely French insult of a military force, said that they “lacked good taste.”
General Zaragoza enjoyed a stunning victory over those crack troops of good taste that day. The French lost 500 men at the Battle of Puebla: the Mexicans lost 100 and sent the French back to the coast, licking their wounds. The French hadn’t lost a battle in 50 years, so this was a demoralizing defeat and a victory of national pride for the Mexicans that cannot be overstated.
Sadly, General Zaragoza died four months later of typhoid fever. He was just 33.
So we raise our margarita glasses on Cinco de Mayo to salute native Texan, General Zaragoza Seguin, for removing Santa Anna from power – forever – and for his San Jacinto-like victory at Puebla.