Q&A with Don Miles, author of
Cinco de Mayo: What is Everybody Celebrating?
Q. May fifth is not Mexican Independence Day?
A. That’s what triggered the whole book. I’ve watched Independence Day Parades in Mexico City, and they’re on September 16th.
Q. Most people know that the Mexicans beat the French in the Battle of Puebla that day, but why were the French there in the first place? What happened after the battle? Did the French just leave?
A. Hardly! It took five years to get the last French soldier out of the country. Mexico had just finished its own Civil War five years before ours got started. When the liberals won and took over the government, they found that the conservatives had emptied the treasury. Mexican President Benito Juárez and the Congress knew they couldn’t pay Mexico’s debts with an empty treasury, so they announced to the rest of the world that they’d have to work something out. That wasn’t good enough for the French.
Q. You talk about the French having a “hidden agenda.” Weren’t they just there to collect Mexico’s foreign debts?
A. That’s what they were telling everybody. The French generals had orders to take over Mexico first, and then use it as a base to help the Confederates win their war against the United States.
Q. Why the Confederates? Did the French have something against the north?
A. Emperor Napoleon III thought the U.S. was becoming too powerful. This would have been his chance to block any further expansion of the United States.
Q. The French didn’t want anything back from the Confederates?
A. This didn’t come out for a couple of years, but the French wanted to take back Texas as part of Mexico. For a while near the end of our Civil War, this became the Confederates’ worst nightmare.
Q. What other countries got involved?
A. For the first few months, the French told Spain and Great Britain that they were just going to seize the Mexican customs houses and collect their debts, so the Brits and the Spaniards went along, until they discovered what the French really wanted, and then they backed out.
Q. There’s a scene that takes place near the beginning of the book where you say that 1,500 Mexicans died in a tragic accident before the French had fired a single shot. What happened?
A. It was a windy night in the army camp, and the women were lighting their cooking fires.Some sparks blew into a barn where 23 tons of explosives were stored.
Q. Several of your reviewers say you’ve got some pretty colorful characters in the book. Describe some of them.
- Princess Agnes Salm-Salm - Vermont farm girl who wound up in Maximilian’s army
- General Jo Shelby - Confederate who never surrendered, led his troops to Mexico City
- Matías Romero - Mexican Ambassador, age 26, who stayed in DC for 39 years
- The Mexican Robin Hood - The French never caught him, but a former henchman did
- General Santiago Vidaurri - made everybody in Matamoros a customs inspector
Q. What are some hard to believe facts in the book?
- People sewing little ounces of gold into the linings of their underwear.
- The bandidos caught on. Hotels had blankets standing by in the lobby for whole stagecoaches full of passengers who would arrive totally naked.
- The dancing girls at the wine bar who got tired of being groped by French soldiers.
- Manuel Gonzales’ Wine Bar in Veracruz. They poisoned the wine one night.
- French Navy ships unloading 700 horses at the height of a hurricane.
- It’s called a “norte” along the Gulf coast. They never lost a single horse.
- The signed treaty – lending Mexico some U.S. money – that some mule decided to carry out into the middle of a stream.
- An alert mule driver rescued it, and it went to Washington.
- The Missouri Confederate Cavalry – headed for Mexico to join Emperor Maximilian – getting into a big shoot-out in Austin, Texas.
- Story of a notorious gang raiding the treasury vault at the state capitol that night.
- French soldiers getting “mooned” from the windows of a convent.
- Well, it was no longer a convent. Those had been seized by the Juárez government.
- Retired Confederate generals – who were living in Mexico – sending Indian runners to fetch the ice for their drinks.
- They enjoyed mint juleps under the mango trees. Volcano with ice was 40 miles away.
Q. The question on the minds of many readers might be “Why is this guy named ‘Miles,’ obviously a gringo, writing a book about what makes Mexicans tick?”
A. My wife of 44 years, who died this past year, was from Mexico City. We met at college, got married, and traveled all over Mexico together. We lived in Mexico back in the 70’s for a while, and put our kids in school there. The book is dedicated to my wife.
Mini & Don Miles with Grandchildren, Xalapa
Q. What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
A. First, I hope to set the story straight. Second, I’d like to see it get picked up by universities, community colleges and even some high schools. I have two Spanish editions coming out next year – one for Spanish teachers and their students, and the other for native speakers and the Mexican market.