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The Battle of Puebla and help from the Zapotec Indians

Benito Juarez - circa 1868
Benito Juarez - circa 1868Public Domain

The celebration of Cinco de Mayo has become a well-known holiday in the United States from the first time it was celebrated since 1863. However, there is a great deal of misconception around the historical relevance of this Mexican holiday over time and which persists today. The joyous festivities of Cinco de Mayo sometimes cause casual observers to mistakenly assume it is in honor of Mexican Independence Day. Cinco de Mayo translates into the fifth of May, so many Americans think that it equates with the fourth of July or American Independence Day. However, Mexican Independence is celebrated in September each year.

The traditional holiday of Cinco de Mayo simply celebrates the improbable victory of approximately 4000 Mexican patriots over several battalions (8,000 troops) of the powerful French Army. Mexican patriots were outnumbered by a margin of nearly 2:1, but were fighting for their freedom. It was an amazing victory, and within the mixture of legends that have been handed down from this period of Mexico's struggle for existence, is one that involves bands of Zapotec Indians (possibly Mixtec Indians as well as private citizens) wielding machetes against the well-disciplined French soldiers. It is a good legend, but it is difficult to verify since such non-military involvement is not easily substantiated.

Such a legend nonetheless, it is not without serious consideration. The Zapotec Indians originated from the area of the Mexican state of Oaxaca which borders the Mexican state of Puebla where Veracruz lies on the eastern coast of Mexico. Oaxaca is also the area in which Benito Juarez was born. Juarez was the first Natïve American elected president of Mexico. He had been born of Indian parents in San Pablo Guelatao in Oaxaca. However, it is not totally clear whether Juarez was of Zapotec or Mixtec descent, but he was a native son from Oaxaca who made good, and it could have played into his favor when he needed native assistance in protecting the homeland from the French who had invaded Mexico in 1862.

Marching from Veracruz towards Mexico City, 8,000 French troops encountered Mexican resistance in the very first battle near the little village of Puebla. There on May 5, 1862, the powerful French battalions engaged a Mexican band of patriots which numbered about 4,000 consisting of Mexican cavalry, regular troops, and possibly Zapotec and Mixtec Indians. Even as a herd of cattle was employed in the victory as the Mexicans stampeded the cattle into the oncoming French foot soldiers. This victory shocked the French and galvanized the Mexican resolve to fight for their freedom.

This entire series of events began when Benito Juarez took the reins of the office of president and discovered the Mexican treasury nearly empty. On July 17, 1861, Juarez issued a moratorium aimed at suspending all foreign debt payments for two years. It was not a good move. France, Great Britain, and Spain all sent warships into the Gulf of Mexico and jointly seized the custom house in the port city of Veracruz in December of 1861. The three governments had determined to stay until they collected on their respective outstanding loans. Britain and Spain simply renegotiated the debt with the Juarez administration and the troops got in their ships and sailed back to Europe.

The French, under the directions of Emperor Napoleon III had other ideas, and decided to exploit the he crisis and use the excuse of collecting their debt payment to establish a French empire in Mexico. The joint venture with warships from Great Britain and Spain was initiated in London, but when true French intentions were made known in Veracruz, the other two nations withdrew after renegotiating the debt. Yet, Napoleon III had already set in motion an insidious plan even before his ships left France. Eventually, he installed Maximilian von Habsburg, a younger brother of the Emperor of Austria, as the emperor of Mexico.

The Battle of Puebla seemed insignificant in light of the fact that the French established a colony and monarchical rule over Mexico, but the small victory was significant enough for Benito Juarez and his supporters to continue the fight for their freedom. They did not give up the fight, and Juarez moved his headquarters to the north, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. He then established a government in exile, and his people fought on. This fight demonstrated great resolve and determination. Juarez had worked hard to bring his people out from under the heel of the Mexican aristocracy and was sincerely willing to fight for genuine reforms, but with the French invasion he was forced to fight for freedom.

It is more than likely this native son of Oaxaca did inspire the Native Americans from his homeland to help him in such a desperate fight, but it can also be understood that this native heritage instilled in him such determination and resolve. The Zapotec and Mixtec Indians had been assisting in the defense of their homelands long before the invading French. The Zapotecs had fought against the Spanish Conquistadors. And before the Spaniards, they had fought against the Aztecs. This is because the Zapotecs were there before any of these conquerors. The ancestral roots of these peoples run deep, and are believed to have originated in the area around 4400 B.C.E.

According to archaeological evidence, the Zapotecs were one of the first groups of people to gain a foothold and a degree of prominence in the area of Oaxaca. In addition, in their own language, they called themselves "Be'ena'a" meaning "The People" or "The True People." They believed that they were the original people who inhabited the area. Unlike many other Mesoamerican Indian peoples, the Zapotecs had no legends of migrating to the Valley of Oaxaca from another geographical location. However, there are many legends about the Zapotec origins, not only about their place of origin, but also regarding their source of origin as human beings.

One legend about the Zapotec origins as human beings relates that their ancestors were born from the rocks, or that they emerged from the earth or from caves. However, Zapotecs also believed that their ancient ancestors descended from animals like the puma or the ocelot. Yet, another legend of Zapotec leaders portrayed the belief that they had descended from supernatural beings that lived among the clouds. When they died, they believed that they would return to live in the clouds. The Zapotecs thus became known as the "The Cloud People" and in their language as "Be'ena' Za'a." This may represent an evolution of thought or belief system, or it may reveal differences of opinion concerning their source of origin.

Zapotec spiritual beliefs may have strongly influenced their cultural development, even to the extent of where they located their civilization. While the Oaxacan Indian groups may have originated in this area around 4400 B.C.E., the earliest Zapotec city of San Jose el Mogote is believed to have been founded around 1600-1400 B.C.E. However, this city was abandoned around 500 B.C.E. when they built a ceremonial center called Monte Albán on the summit of a very high and steep hill in the middle of the Valley of Oaxaca. Today it is among the most studied archaeological sites in the Americas, possibly because it is one of the most majestic of the sites of Mesoamerica.

Monte Albán served as the capital of the Zapotec civilization from 500 B.C.E. and the Zapotecs became dominant throughout the area around 200 B.C.E. Monte Albán became the spiritual center that was dedicated to the cult of worshiping mysterious gods. The Zapotec culture would have started flourishing at around the same time as the early Mesoamerican city of Teothihuacan. The Zapotec peoples established trade with this city and the later Maya civilization to the south. The Zapotec seem to have shared cultural similarities with the Maya and the earlier Olmec peoples. Some commonalities in religion may have existed between these cultures as many of the same gods were worshiped.

Eventually, the Aztec Empire assimilated this entire culture as they conquered the Oaxacan peoples in the 1450s, and ultimately adopted and worshiped many of the same gods of these earlier peoples, even some of the more mysterious gods of the Zapotecs. But, with the coming of the Spaniards, the worship practices and rites of the ancient religions receded into the shadows of the past. However, the defiance of the people in clinging to their old beliefs and ways of worship proved even too much for the powerful Catholic Church to completely eradicate. Such a spirit of defiance still showed up in the middle of the 1800s, especially after one of their own, after so many centuries, rose up to become a great leader.