OUR NEIGHBOR TO THE SOUTH
is in the news a lot lately, so it's a good time to shore up your knowledge of Mexican history - and what better day to start than Cinco de Mayo? And here's the most important fact to know: contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo isn't Mexican Independence Day. Mexican Independence Day, which is a national public holiday, is celebrated on September 16 (be sure and drop that casually tonight over tequila shots and margaritas and you'll sound super smart). In contrast, Cinco de Mayo is the anniversary of the Mexican army's victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War in 1862.
I know what you're thinking: why is one win so important? Like much of history, it's because the win - much like, say, our Battle of Germantown - gave the revolutionaries hope.
As in the United States, Mexico struggled to find its footing as a new country. After gaining independence from Spain in 1822, Mexico juggled a few different kinds of governance. Eventually, the country separated into two parties: Liberals and Conservatives. Conservatives tended to side with more traditional, European policies, including a number of privileges granted to the Catholic Church. Among those privileges were a number of exemptions from tax. In contrast, the Liberals weren't keen on the granting the Catholic Church any special privileges and sought instead to limit them.
In the mid-19th century, the Liberals rose to power. Part of their agenda included passing a number of "Liberal Reform Laws." The first of those laws, the Juárez Law (named after former Mexican President Benito Juárez), was meant to restrict the authority and scope of the Church courts. A second law, the Lerdo Law (named after former Treasury Secretary Miguel Lerdo de Tejada) allowed the government to confiscate Church land and - you guessed it - tax it. A third law, the Iglesias Law (named after controversial interim President José María Iglesias - sorry, Mom, not Julio), put further restrictions on the clergy.
As you can imagine, as more and more laws were passed which restricted the rights of the Church, the Conservatives became agitated. Eventually, the two factions - the Liberals and the Conservatives - went to war. The civil war happened at roughly the same time as the one in the United States which would have significance here at home (trust me, keep reading).
Wars, of course, are expensive. And while most of Europe was happy to stay out of conflicts in the Americas, they weren't keen on losing resources, including money. So when, in 1861, then President Mexican Benito Juárez defaulted on a series of debts owed to European countries, the Europeans sent the equivalent of armed thugs to Veracruz to collect. Eventually, Britain and Spain negotiated a deal and returned home but France, spurred on by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (also called Napoleon III), stayed, determined to make a statement and perhaps snag some additional land. That was the beginning of the Franco-Mexican War (1861-1867).