Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. It is more than just an excuse to drink margaritas and cervezas, or eat enchiladas or mole poblano. May 5 is known as a day of reckoning for the nation of Mexico.
On that date in 1862, Mexican military forces led by Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza repelled occupying French armies at Puebla. It was a defining moment, for it marked the beginning of the end of French rule in Mexico.
It was a momentous event in Mexican history — and for those in New Mexico, one worth remembering and commemorating in order to be united in some way with our neighbor to the south.
By 1862, New Mexico no longer was part of Mexico. We were a young U.S. territory eager to prove our worthiness of statehood and someday become part of the Union.
Our place as a territory was secured after the war with Mexico in 1848. Thanks to the political maneuverings of the Compromise of 1850, New Mexico became a free territory — bordered on the east by slaveholding Texas and the west by free California. Arizona was part of New Mexico at that time, so counties like Rio Arriba stretched to the California border.
Texas made a groundless claim to New Mexico land all the way to the Rio Grande, and even into Colorado and beyond. It was a false claim which created lingering resentment on the part of those who remembered the Texans’ attempt to take Santa Fe in 1841. Thankfully, the Nuevo Mexicanos, led by that all too human historical figure Manuel Armijo, captured the Texas force and sent it packing south.
New Mexico escaped the fate of being, well, Texan.
By the 1860s, while Mexico was writhing under the colonial boot of France, New Mexico was having a wrestling match of her own as a chasm of civil strife and debates over the morality of slavery were tearing the U.S. apart. By 1862, as battle waged in Mexico between the Mexicans and the French occupying forces, New Mexicans were engaged in a little war in their own backyard.
Confederate forces from Texas attempted to annex New Mexico, entering the territory from the south. They were met by pro-Union New Mexican forces on Feb. 20, 1862, at Valverde near Socorro. The Confederate forces won that battle, and for a brief moment, it looked as if New Mexico would flip. Confederate flags flew, if briefly, in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. But the Union forces regrouped and readied to take on their nemesis at Glorieta Pass on March 26, 1862.
Union reinforcements arrived from Colorado to join the New Mexicans. This group also was buttressed by brave Hispano New Mexicans, once Mexican and now U.S. citizens. Some were veterans of the now-controversial Indian Wars in which many New Mexicans participated.
The outcome in Glorieta was different than at Valverde.
At first, it seemed a repeat: The Confederates had a supply line keeping them strong and formidable. Yet New Mexico’s Union forces were able to destroy the supplies of their enemy and defeated the Confederates, who were driven back to Santa Fe, then Texas.
New Mexico remained in the Union and the U.S. eventually defeated the Confederacy in 1865. But the battle for the soul of the nation would continue.
In many ways, 1862 was critical in the history of Mexico and the U.S., as both nations struggled to define who they were and who they would become. France was ejected from Mexico in 1867 and the U.S. abolished slavery. But Jim Crow laws would overtake parts of the U.S. and Mexico would continue to struggle.
Caught in the middle, New Mexico would wrestle with her own ghosts.