PUEBLA DE LOS ÁNGELES, Mexico — The authentic Cinco de Mayo, like Ireland’s Solemnity of St. Patrick, is quite different from the ersatz celebrations in the United States conjured by the beer barons and their marketing wizards, dousing Kowalskis, Smiths, and Changs with Budweiser or Schlitz until they become Mexicans-for-a-Day.
In Mexico the Fifth of May is an “optional” national holiday, with a few schools and offices closed. With the exception of Puebla, most communities in the country do not have a celebration. September 16, not May 5, is Mexican Independence Day. On the panoramic Rorschach of Mexican identity and history, Cinco de Mayo is scarcely a smudge: It recalls that rarity of rarities, a Mexican military victory in an international conflict.
On the hill overlooking this city, on May 5, 1862, outnumbered federal troops and local militiamen — think of them as Mexican Minutemen — defeated French invaders from the Second Empire of Napoleon III, whose advisors on international development and security considered Mexico a “failed state” in need of a forceful dose of fraternité. The walls on these heights enclosed first a colonial Franciscan monastery, later a republican military stronghold, and finally, in what passes in our secular, post-Franciscan age for an “instrument of peace,” the National Museum of Non-Intervention. On the usually busy weekend before Puebla’s big day, the museum was closed because of the intervention of international health bureaucrats in Geneva, Washington, Beijing, and Brussels, and, in an Atlanta Margaret Mitchell never knew, the white-coated wonders of the Centers for Disease Control.
The Mexicans won the battle of Puebla, but soon the French won the war and achieved their objective of regime change, installing an under-employed Austrian nobleman, Maximilian von Habsburg, as Emperor of Mexico. Many citizens of Mexico, and notably of Puebla, since colonial times one of the most conservative, Catholic and royalist communities in the country, had been disheartened with the aesthetic and hygienic implications of four decades of republican government: “freedom is untidy.” They were relieved by the advent of a scion of the great family of Philip II, who authorized construction of Puebla’s majestic cathedral. Near the monument to the heroes of Cinco de Mayo stands the arch where poblano conservatives welcomed their own Habsburg Emperor to their city.
For years, Mexican conservatives had been in disarray, casting about like CPAC congregants for a flavor-of-the-month (Romney? Thompson? Or the gringo Santa Anna, Gingrich?). At last, in Maximilian, they thought they had their man on a white horse. Not for the last time in the history of this continent, activists on the Right mistook dynastic politics for conservative convictions and policies. Maximilian turned out to be a Compassionate Conservative — a closet liberal. By 1867, squishy Maximilian lost his base, and more. The French military cut and ran, and Mexican conservatives shed few tears when Maximilian was captured by the Reforma army of Benito Juárez and, through the ministrations of one of the country’s ubiquitous firing squads, had his once-metaphorical bleeding heart made dead real.
While the Cinco de Mayo battle site stood closed, Puebla’s Catholic churches — bearing the United Nations seal of approval as “Patrimony of Humanity” — were open for private prayer or tourist gawking, but in the archbishop’s concession to the swine flu scare, without Sunday or weekday masses. (For the erstwhile Huguenot Henry of Navarre, Paris was worth a Mass, but not so for 21st-century Puebla, clenched in the Gnostic sphere of influence of the United Nations’ World Health Organization.) The most glorious of the baroque ornamentations of Puebla is the Church of St. Dominic’s Chapel of the Rosary, whose feast in October celebrates another unlikely victory, that of the Western alliance against the Ottomans in the naval battle of Lepanto. A source of pride in Catholic Mexico is that the coalition commander, Genoese admiral Andrea Doria, carried into battle a copy of the image of Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe given to him by Philip II.
A few days visiting Puebla was an escape from a state of siege 80 miles away in Mexico City, whose 20 million inhabitants have been denied access by the health bureaucracy to the cantinas and restaurants that tend to make life in the crowded metropolis worth living. As Cinco de Mayo approached, Mexican federal officials were changing their public attitude toward the World Health Organization and the big nation-states from docility to resentment and defiance. Mexicans, if no one else, recognize that the recent actions of the United Nations and the governments of France, Spain, and the People’s Republic of China among others restricting travel and tourism are barely distinguishable from the instruments of economic warfare. A Sunday newspaper headline blared a sadly feckless government declaration urging Mexicans to avoid travel to China — to which a girl from the formerly Mexican territory of the San Fernando Valley might shrug, “As if.”
In the national capital, citizens held tight to their operating-room masks, believing perhaps that if only Dr. von Aschenbach had availed himself of one of these, Death in Venice might have had an ending as happy as The Sound of Music. But from Thursday through Sunday in Puebla — Mexico’s conservative Orange County — the spirit of Non-Intervention waxed each day with the waning use of the sterile blue cubrebocas. Will the next manifestation be a rally to “Get Mexico Out of the U.N.”?
(Mr. Duggan is a visiting professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey in the suburbs of Mexico City.)