It’s often said that while winning a battle has immediate gains, it’s pointless if you lose the war. Not so for the Battle of Puebla, which occurred on Cinco de Mayo, 1862.
Not only did Mexico win that battle, it gave a struggling democracy pride at a time when France, a superior and better-equipped force, tried to topple the government and take over the country. A year later the foreigners returned, accomplished their purpose, and set up Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor. In 1867 Mexican troops finally prevailed and the country returned to being a republic.
History lesson over? Not quite. According to National Geographic, the Battle of Puebla strengthened the morale of a young Mexican nation and became “the rallying cry of resistance to foreign domination.” We know Cinco de Mayo today, not as a celebration of the French defeat, but for its celebration of Mexican culture.
I grew up in San Juan Capistrano and spent the second half of my life in Sonoma. Both California cities still celebrate their Mexican heritage. The victory at Puebla must have been welcome news to those who remembered the 1846-48 war between Mexico and the United States, a war that was settled by treaty. The Americans weren’t after subjugation. They wanted specific lands—California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Texas—lands that would fulfill their “manifest destiny,” the buzz words of the day.
Fascinated by old family stories, last year I began writing a historical romance series set in California. The Mission Belles series explores how the Mexican aristocracy survived the transfer of California to the Americans and how the hidalgos adapted to suddenly becoming aliens in their own land. A succession of corrupt officials had made the wealthy rancheros tired of their own government. Many secretly supported the Americans, some of whom had married their daughters. Others did not, but the resistance was neither prolonged nor intense.
By 1862—the year the Battle of Puebla took place—order had been established in California after the chaos of the Gold Rush. By then, old Mexican land titles had either been upheld or denounced, and the new state was ripe for settlers coming from the east. The year also saw refugees from Mexico entering California, either escaping the horrors of war, or taking advantage of abundant and well-advertised opportunities in their neighboring country. One was my ancestor, Jesus B. Nieblas, who walked with his family from Sinaloa to Southern California, initially settling in what would one day become Orange County. Did he have special insights about what might be coming to his country in the immediate future, or was he prudently taking his family to a place that promised a better life? We can only guess.
As we enjoy the fiestas, Ballet Folklorico demonstrations, mariachis, and pinatas, let us also remember the lessons of Cinco de Mayo. Battles won can give us hope, determination, and a never-give-up attitude that can sustain and propel us to our final victory.
Feliz Cinco de Mayo!
Shadow of the Fox
In 1846 War Looms in Alta California.
Sorina Braithwaite, rebellious granddaughter of a prominent California ranchero, has her own battle to fight. Desperate to escape an arranged marriage to a man she despises, she threatens to expose an American spy unless he helps her flee.
Lt. Lance Grainger, intrigued by her audacity as much as her beauty, knows if Sorina disappears, her arrogant fiancé will follow, thus distracting him from the insurgency he’s plotting. But there’s a risk. As the son of a man branded a coward, Lance has spent his entire career rebuilding his family’s honor. If he’s thought to be a deserter, his honor will be in shreds.
As the declaration of war nears, Lance and Sorina set out on a journey of danger and intrigue, but both soon discover their hearts may be in the greatest peril of all.
Author of nine novels and eight history books, Pamela Gibson is a former City Manager who lives part time in Northern California’s wine country and part time in the Nevada desert. Having spent the last three years messing about in boats, a hobby that included a five-thousand-mile trip in a 32-foot Nordic Tug with her patient spouse, she now spends most of her time indoors happily reading, writing, cooking and keeping up with the antics of her gran-cats, gran-dog, and gran-fish. Sadly, the gran-lizard went to his final reward.