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Cinco de Mayo!

Goliad puts on one of the nation's biggest Cinco de Mayo extravaganzas. The town's strong ties to the landmark Mexican battle also may make it the most meaningful.

By Cecilia Ballí

In Goliad, Texas, a story about Ignacio Zaragoza might begin a bit melodramatically.

"He was a man of compassion..." longtime Goliad resident and justice of the peace Emilio T. Vargas will begin. Sitting there in his black cowboy boots and his crisp jean shirt - back upright and hands resting on either knee - Vargas will go on to describe how the brave, young military man defeated Napoleon III's troops in Mexico's most glorious military victory. His voice will turn even more impassioned as he tells you, too, how in the early 1940s a local historian made a trip to Mexico City and discovered that the heroic Mexican general had been born right here, in this unassuming little Texas settlement. And then you will understand why what could be the most meaningful Cinco de Mayo celebration on this side of the Rio Grande takes place in a town of just 2,000 residents.

Though not the most significant holiday in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo has quickly become the United States' preeminent celebration of Mexican culture, akin to St. Patrick's Day tributes to all things Irish. Yet in Goliad, while residents have maintained the day's celebratory spirit, the commemoration of Mexico's 1862 victory at the Battle of Puebla takes on a weightier purpose that includes educating the public about Texas' profound ties to Mexico.

"Goliad has been celebrating Cinco de Mayo since before it was popular to celebrate Cinco de Mayo here in Texas," says Emilio "Sonny" Vargas III, the elder Vargas' son. Sonny Vargas is a middle school history teacher and president of the Ignacio Zaragoza Society, which organizes the annual festivities in Goliad. "We didn't just jump on the bandwagon when being Latino became popular," he says. "We've been at it for decades, and I think it's very evident in what we do and how we do it."

Ignacio Seguín Zaragoza was born on March 24, 1829, the same year that Goliad's name was changed from La Bahía del Espíritu Santo to an anagram of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the priest who ignited Mexico's independence movement. The second son of Miguel G. Zaragoza, an infantryman from Veracruz, Ignacio was baptized in Goliad's Presidio La Bahía and lived in the surrounding early Spanish settlement until his family relocated to Matamoros following Mexico's defeat in the Texas Revolution. He later moved to Monterrey where he enrolled in the seminary, which he later gave up. For several years he was a businessman until, in 1853, the state of Nuevo Leon offered him what would become his career and passion: a place in the military.

The four decades that followed Mexico's 1821 independence from Spain were marked by economic instability and punctuated by internal political conflict. During a civil war that lasted from 1857 to 1860, Mexico's liberal faction, led by Benito Juárez, defeated conservative forces to establish a constitutional, democratic government. But the financial troubles remained, and in 1861 President Juárez declared a two-year moratorium on the nation's European debts. Five months later a fleet of Spanish ships arrived at Veracruz, with French and British forces soon making their own appearance. While the Spanish and the British eventually withdrew, the French, under Napoleon's orders, were determined to stay.

"Your enemies are the first soldiers of the world, but you are the first sons of Mexico," Zaragoza proclaimed to his small army of several hundred Mexicans before they were attacked by a significantly larger French force in Puebla on May 5, 1862. A captain in the Mexican army, Zaragoza had been appointed by Juárez to serve as minister of war and navy in 1861. When the struggle with the French began, however, Zaragoza did what he loved best, leading the Mexican army on the ground.

After a long day of fighting that May 5, the French withdrew to Orizaba, forever making Zaragoza one of Mexico's most revered military heroes. The city's name was changed from Puebla de los Angeles to Puebla de Zaragoza, and, with time, countless schools, plazas and streets throughout the country would also be named in his honor. Though Zaragoza died that same year of typhoid fever, and though the French eventually defeated Mexico and ruled from 1864 to 1867, Zaragoza's legacy lived on in Mexico's spirit of independence, perseverance and self-determination.

Today, the foundation of the caliche floor where Zaragoza first crawled and eventually ran is preserved in Goliad, surrounded by whitewashed, plastered stone walls that represent what his family's modest three-room home would have looked like. The building serves as a museum honoring Zaragoza. The site, which is managed by Texas Parks and Wildlife, was built up from what remained as a pile of rubble and was completed in 1974, though it was later closed for renovation until last year's Cinco de Mayo celebration. The house sits in front of Presidio la Bahía and is a representation of military housing that would have been around the presidio in 1829.

Between the house and U.S. 183 stands another significant monument, one that the Zaragoza Society fancied for years: a 3,000-pound bronze statue of General Zaragoza, which arrived in 1980 as a gift to the state of Texas from the state of Puebla.

With all the importance of Zaragoza's birth in Goliad, there are other reasons Cinco de Mayo takes on an added significance for Texans of Mexican descent, argues Andrés Tijerina, a fellow of the Texas State Historical Association and an award-winning professor of history at Austin Community College. Tijerina points out that Tejano contributions, from military leadership to tactics, may very well have won the Battle of Puebla for Mexico.

While Zaragoza was born in Texas when it was still the Mexican state of Coahuila y Texas, there was another important military leader in the Battle of Puebla that was fully Texan. Capt. Porfirio Zamora, the commander of a cavalry troop that fought under Zaragoza, hailed from a rural Texas community. "So Zamora was literally a Texas boy," says Tijerina, "and he lived in a place called Palito Blanco, which today is nothing more than the site of a small, old Tejano ranch. But in the mid-19th century, it was the focal point of a strong Mexican rural community."

That community, like many others in the South Texas region extending from the Rio Grande north to the Nueces River, still felt a deep allegiance to Mexico in the second half of the 19th century, Tijerina explains. Although Texas' annexation by the United States in 1845 and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848 had automatically changed their citizenship, the fact that the Rio Grande region experienced a power vacuum until about 1880 - neither Spain nor Mexico nor the Republic of Texas nor the United States were able to control it - made it so that Tejanos were technically U.S. citizens but "felt very Mexican in the 1860s."

As a result, they were integrally connected to Juárez' efforts to establish a liberal democratic government, sending him money raised by mutual aid societies and even physical manpower for his cause. Before the French intervened, it had not been uncommon for Tejanos to organize by the hundreds or travel alone into Mexico to participate in military events. Even as late as 1888, a group of Texas-Mexicans ventured south as an armed, organized military troop to confront the regime of Mexican president and dictator Porfirio Díaz, who by then had toppled Juárez's government.

"The significance to Tejanos is that Tejanos strongly opposed Díaz because they had fought to establish Juárez's democracy," says Tijerina. "So Tejanos felt very closely akin to Mexico and to Benito Juárez's liberal democratic government. That's what Cinco de Mayo was all about: Benito Juárez was struggling to establish a liberal, democratic government in Mexico when England, France and Spain invaded Mexico to try to colonize it."

And so Porfirio Zamora served as a cavalry commander for Júarez, while Díaz, who was then barely emerging as an important historical figure, led another major flank of troops at the Battle of Puebla. After the battle, it was Zamora who received something like a medal of honor from Juárez, and later, after he had returned to his home in Palito Blanco and Díaz had launched his own political campaign, the would-be president made a trip to Texas to seek his compatriot's support. "The Mexican presidential candidate came to get Zamora's endorsement," Tijerina says. "That's how important a Tejano was to Mexican national politics."

Tejanos may also have made a more crucial contribution at the Battle of Puebla: the concept of light cavalry, or compañía volante, as the military tactic was known in Spanish. Because of their lives as ranchers and their frequent confrontations with mobile, nomadic American Indian tribes, Tejanos had become skilled horsemen and developed a technique of fighting in small, offensive units. ("They were always taking the battle to other people," says Tijerina, "they weren't sitting in a fort defending themselves.") Anywhere between three to 15 men would organize as a mounted troop that traveled with spare horses.

The advantage of light cavalries was that they could move easily and provide the fighters with long-range reconnaissance. They facilitated communication and allowed the troops to make shock attacks by either riding straight through an infantry or surrounding it on all sides. So successful was this strategy in helping small numbers win big struggles that it flourished on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

"If you stop and think about it," Tijerina says, "that's the Texas Ranger. The Anglo-American simply copied the model from the compañía volante. And the significance for Cinco de Mayo? Tejano light cavalry were instrumental in the Battle of Puebla."

These are the kinds of stories that the elders in Goliad, a town steeped in history, learned when they were children sitting on front porches on mild Texas nights.

They are the stories that made them believe that their tiny town is truly special - a gem in both Mexican and Texas history - and why they commemorate events like Cinco de Mayo with such personal zeal.

"I know we sound like we're up on soapboxes, and I guess we are," says Lupita Barrera, TPW manager at Mission Espíritu Santo State Historic Site in Goliad. "It just makes it so rich here that there are still descendants in this community that can tell you stories... you almost hear it from primary sources."

Goliad Mayor Bill Schaefer agrees. "There are still families that have a lot of this history in their homes," he says.

Though Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated in Goliad as long as anyone can remember, the annual tradition has become increasingly larger and more festive in recent years. Goliad was declared the official Cinco de Mayo venue by the Texas Senate in 1999.

The festivities will begin two weeks prior to May 5 with the coronation of Miss Cinco de Mayo as well as Junior Miss Cinco de Mayo and Little Miss Cinco de Mayo. But they will officially kick off on Friday, May 3, with opening ceremonies outside Presidio La Bahía, between General Zaragoza's statue and home. Both Mexican and American dignitaries are expected to attend, and historians will speak about the historical significance of Cinco de Mayo. In the evening the celebration will move to Schroeder Hall for the presentation of the queen's court and a coronation dance.

Saturday's events will begin with an 11 a.m. parade around the historic Goliad town square, followed by a brief ceremony to be held at noon. Locals and visitors alike will mingle in a daylong fiesta with booths that will feature games, Mexican arts and crafts and various types of music and food.

Says the younger Vargas: "We have live music all day long. We have conjunto music, we have mariachi music, we have ballet folklórico dancers. We're working to bring in people with other types of entertainment. We have a lot of food booths, too, from hot dogs and hamburgers to gorditas and taquitos and nopales." The day ends with a street dance that will keep young and old moving until 1 a.m. with music from conjunto to country.

On Sunday, May 5, the weekend will culminate with a Catholic Mass at the Zaragoza Amphitheater, celebrated by Bishop David Fellhauer of the Victoria Diocese. Following the Mass, a barbecue luncheon will seal the busy weekend. Except for the barbecue, which requires tickets, all events are free and open to the public.

A significant part of Cinco de Mayo in Goliad is the educational programming. This year, volunteers from the Zaragoza Society and others will go into classrooms to talk about the significance of Cinco de Mayo. Goliad State Park staff is developing curriculum materials and will distribute the materials to schools in the area. Historical characters in period clothing will be on the square and will interact with the audience, and Mexican and French soldier encampments are being planned at the presidio.

"I think once people from outside Goliad realize what a treasure Goliad is, they will want to come back at times other than when we have our fiestas," says Vargas. Goliad is a popular place in March, when thousands of people come to witness the Crossroads of Texas Living History Association's reenactment of the killing of Colonel James Fannin and his men. And this year, the town was featured on Home & Garden Television's program "Small Town Christmas."

All in all, Goliad may already be on its way to becoming one of Texas' most meaningful tourist destinations. But its residents remain as ambitious as justice of the peace and storyteller Emilio Vargas II. His next goal, says the elder Vargas, is "to make Cinco de Mayo an official holiday in Goliad."

Getting There

The city of Goliad is at the crossroads of U.S. Highways 59 and 183/77A. Goliad State Park is located 1/4 mile south of Goliad on U.S. Hwy. 183/77A.

Opening Ceremonies

May 3, 10 a.m.
Presidio La Bahia
1/2 mile south of Goliad on U.S. Hwy. 183/77A.

The Queen's Court Dance

May 3, 8 p.m., Schroeder Hall
Take U.S. Highway 183/77A north out of Goliad. About 4 miles north of Goliad, take FM 622 east for about 15 miles to Schroeder Hall, the second oldest dance hall in Texas.

Cinco de Mayo Parade and Fiesta

May 4, 11 a.m.
Goliad's courthouse square in historic downtown Goliad. Downtown is two blocks south of the intersection of U.S. Highways 59 and 183/77A at East End Street. A daylong fiesta with food and music from conjunto to country continues until 1 a.m. For more information, contact William Zermeno at (361) 645-8526.

Sunday Mass

May 5, 10 a.m.
Zaragoza Amphitheater
In front of Presidio La Bahia (see above)
Barbecue luncheon follows the Mass at a location to be announced. Tickets are $5 each.
For more information on Goliad's Cinco de Mayo festivities, contact Sonny Vargas at (361) 645-4079

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