In 1861, the 1st year of the U.S. Civil War, the Secretary of State for the Confederate States of America Robert Tombs sent John Pickett as his envoy to Mexico City. Since Union forces had blockaded southern ports, Pickett’s mission was to persuade the government of President Benito Juarez to allow slave produced cotton from the U.S. south to be transported overland and loaded onto ships anchored in Mexican ports. The cotton was to eventually be sold to various European countries to help support the Confederate war effort.
Despite persistent attempts to gain Mexico’s approval the Mexican government refused and John Pickett’s mission failed. To compound Pickett’s failure and disappointment prior to his return empty handed to the U.S. south, he was thrown into jail in Mexico City after getting into a fist fight with a Union sympathizer there. U.S. rulers have been careful to exclude this event and any acknowledgement of the mutually beneficial history that Mexican and African people share.
The destiny of Africa’s scattered people has been impacted and decided in more countries than popular history has acknowledged. Mainstream history does not reveal how Africans benefited from France’s humiliating defeat at Puebla, Mexico on May 5, 1862. Cinco de Mayo is a fitting and spirited annual celebration which reminds us of Mexico’s heroic, although short-lived victory over Napoleon 3rd’s larger and better-armed forces.
Black people should also celebrate the French army’s defeat at the hands of Mexican forces for two reasons. First, Napoleon’s generals, who commanded the French invaders, supported the slave-holding Confederacy in the U.S. Second, Benito Juárez, the president of Mexico at that time, gave land to anti- colonial Black-Seminoles.
Napoleon III had hoped that the Confederacy would quickly win the U.S. Civil War, retain slavery and supply southern cotton to French textile mills. Napoleon was encouraged by the major Confederate victory over union forces at Bull Run. He envisioned an alliance between himself and slaveholding U.S. southerners to guarantee raw materials for French industry. Napoleon was well on his way to satisfying this ambition when the defenders at Puebla, although out- manned and out-gunned, interrupted his imperialist ambitions to conquer and subjugate Mexico’s people, and position himself side by side with those who held Africans in bondage.
The French forces, considered to be the best army of that day, were so contemptuous of Mexican forces that they attempted to push right through the center of Puebla’s defenders in their first assault. This tactical error cost the French over a thousand casualties, dead or wounded, strewn on the battlefield. The Mexican army was so heartened by their success that they left their positions and chased the humiliated French troops. The defeat of a Confederate ally such as Napoleon, is a historic event that descendants of enslaved Africans and all others who uphold democracy should celebrate with enthusiasm. It was President Benito Juárez who gave land to a faction of the Black-Seminole freedom fighters that had carried on a long and courageous war of liberation against Spanish and U.S. colonizers. It was certainly in the interest of Blacks on both sides of the Rio Grande, that the Juárez government which had befriended rebellious slaves, and whose predecessor had outlawed slavery, survive Napoleon’s invasion and continue in office.
It is interesting to note that Napoleon was urged to invade and overthrow the Mexican government by the brother of Austria’s emperor Archduke Maximilian. Maximilian’s involvement in the plot gives Africans even more cause to join with Chicano neighbors in celebrating Cinco de Mayo. Six years before Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Mexico,
Maximilian married Carlotta, sister of the infamous King Leopold 2nd of Belgium- a racist despot who was personally responsible for colonizing, mutilating and annihilating millions of Congolese in his drive for profits. It is also worth noting that during this period Europe’s ruling elites were busily plotting the conquest of non-Western people-often cooperating with one another and occasionally competing. By 1884 at the infamous Berlin Conference France, Britain, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands, joined by the U.S. as godfather, resolved their differences and divided the African continent among themselves.
Through shared misfortune – conquest and slavery – the histories of Mexicans and Blacks in this hemisphere have become inseparably linked. Few, if any, oppressed people have overcome adversity without assistance from allies. Indigenous and African people have been one another’s primary ally in many instances, since the beginning of the pillage, slavery and genocide initiated by Columbus in the Americas over 500 years ago. From Canada to the southern tip of South America, countless acts of joint resistance to colonization and slavery are central to the suppressed history of both peoples. Present-day Black and Brown conflicts whether at high school campuses, on the streets, on the big yard at San Quentin or between equally disempowered Latino and Black laborers in South L.A., rewards the same elites whose wealth and power are dependent upon divided and unorganized people of color.
Whether the flashpoint is Puebla or Chiapas, Cinco de Mayo is a perfect time to reflect upon and discuss the continuing resistance by Mexico’s people to domination, and when appropriate, the complimentary dynamics of the struggles for Black and Brown liberation. Cinco de Mayo is not to be commercialized by opportunists or trivialized as a one day superficial and lukewarm acknowledgement of Mexican culture. When honest accounts of history are finally written into textbooks, African and Mexican (Latino) youth will be be better able to affirm, deepen and project their long-established unity into the future.
written by Ron Wilkins (Professor & original LA Slauson)