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Mexican-Americans Celebrate Cinco de Mayo - 2004-05-05

People of Mexican heritage in the United States are celebrating Cinco de Mayo Wednesday, a commemoration of the battle in which a small Mexican army threw back a larger French invasion force. The day has special significance for a small south Texas town where the hero of the battle was born.

Cinco de Mayo has become a day for fiestas, with lots of music, dancing and food. It has become a celebration of Mexican culture and the pride of Mexican communities in the United States. However, it began as a celebration of victory in battle, specifically the battle of Puebla on May 5 1862, in which a 33-year-old Mexican General named Ignacio Zaragoza led his beleaguered forces to victory over the French invaders.

Unfortunately, the victorious general died three months later of typhoid, but his heroism is still remembered in Mexico and in the little town where he was born in south Texas called Goliad. If you want to know about Zaragoza and his history, the man to talk to in Goliad is 70-year-old Benny Martinez, who can trace his lineage to the general. He said that even though the French later took Mexico City and remained for several years, their defeat in Puebla rallied Mexicans all over the country to fight them and prevented them from dominating the country.

?The battle of Puebla was a big, big victory for the Mexicans because the French knew the Mexicans were fighting them,? he said. ?Even though they came back with 30,000 troops, the Mexicans still had a large army under Benito Juarez up north and, as a matter of fact, they went all the way to El Paso. Porfirio Diaz had a large army down south. So they did not really take all of Mexico and France was running out of money. They did not have money to pay all those soldiers.?

Mr. Martinez argued that the Mexican victory at Puebla was also important for the United States, because a quick French occupation of Mexico would have allowed the European power to meddle in the U.S. Civil War.

?They were siding with the southern army, they were siding with the Confederate army,? he noted. ?So you see, that would have been a big problem for the union, the northern army. If the French had really taken over all of Mexico, they were going to help the Confederate army. That is why I say it was a victory for both nations.?

Today, Benny Martinez keeps alive the memory of the important battle and its hero, General Zaragoza, by tending to the museum that is operated in the home where the hero of Puebla was born in 1829. Mr. Martinez delights in telling stories about Zaragoza and local history to visitors from all over the country and many parts of Mexico. He said that Goliad holds a special place in the hearts of people from the Mexican state of Puebla.

?Back in 1880, the government of Puebla and the people of Puebla donated a statue to us, to the people of Goliad and the statue of Zaragoza is right here in Goliad, not far from the house where he was born,? he explained. ?It is a ten-foot [three-meter high] bronze statue of Zaragoza where he is standing there with his military uniform on and he has his sword at his side, the way they used to wear their swords back then.?

Every year at this time, the close to 2000 residents of Goliad spend two or three days celebrating their famous native son and the battle he won. Benny Martinez added that he always takes the pride of his little town with him wherever he goes.

?When I go to Houston or other towns, I always introduce myself,? he said. ?I say I am Benny Martinez from the land where General Zaragoza was born, the hero of Puebla, the land of brave men and the land of beautiful women, so they get a kick out of that.?

Benny Martinez, keeping alive the history of his people and the memory of Ignacio Zaragoza, the man who, on the fifth of May, Cinco de Mayo, 142 years ago, led Mexico to victory at the battle of Puebla.