Cinco de Mayo and Chapultepec Castle

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Chapultepec Castle (1889-1897)

Some of you are probably enjoying the Cinco de Mayo celebrations this week. I’m sure lots of margaritas are being served. A couple years ago I saw a woman in my building dressed up as an Aztec with bells on her legs. You could hear her long before you saw her.

I grew up in Mexico City – grades 2 to 9. I never saw any Cinco de Mayo celebrations until I moved to the USA years later. In Mexico it is a regional holiday centered around the state of Puebla. It commemorates the defeat of the French in the Battle of Puebla. Napoleon III decided it would be a good idea to invade Mexico – for several reasons I won’t go into here. The French army landed on the coast and marched in toward the capital. As they reached Puebla, they met with heavy resistance. Although there were only 4,000 ill-equipped Mexicans, they were able to overcome and defeat the 8,000 well equipped French army on May 5, 1862.

Yay! Margarita time!!

Chapultepec Castle Dining Room
Chapultepec Castle Dining Room

Unfortunately Napoleon III did not take this well. The following year he sent a much larger army and was able to take over the Mexican government and place a puppet emperor at the head of it. Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was a Hapsburg and Commander in Chief of the Austrian Navy. In May 1864 he arrived in Mexico as Maximilian I, Emperor of Mexico. He was accompanied by his wife, Charlotte, Princess of Belgium.


Chapultepec Castle
Chapultepec Castle

He was liked and supported by the conservatives but had problems with the liberal forces led by Benito Juarez who refused to recognize his rule. Battles continued over the three years he was Emperor.

When the US Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln supported Juarez and Napoleon III started to withdraw his troops. Maximilian fought until the end but was captured and executed in June 1867. In 1866 his wife, Charlotte, had returned to Europe seeking support for her husband but was unsuccessful. She never returned to Mexico and spent the rest of her days, until her death in 1927, in seclusion. They say she went insane and never acknowledged her husband’s death.

During the time they were in Mexico, they lived at Chapultepec Castle.

Chapultepec Castle sits on top of a hill 7,628 feet above sea level. The hill is in the middle of Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. It is reminiscent of the palaces of Europe with one room leading into the next and all lavishly furnished. It has big terraces with views overlooking Mexico City. People of importance have been occupying this hill since Aztec times. It has housed military personnel, a military school, presidents, imperialists, an observatory, and a museum. Today it is the home of the National History Museum.

Chapultepec Castle Gardens
Chapultepec Castle Gardens

In the Mexican-American war of 1847 the US Marines stormed and occupied the castle. During the battle six Mexican cadets refused to fall back and fought to the death. There is a mural on the ceiling of the castle showing one of them wrapped in a flag. U.S. Marine Corps tradition states the reason they have a red strip down the leg of their dress uniform is to commemorate all the Marines who died at Chapultepec and the U.S. Marines official hymn starts out, “From the Halls of Montezuma.” Montezuma was the Aztec emperor who came up against Hernan Cortez in the 1500s.

Here I am ready for school.
Here I am ready for school in Mexico.

When I was growing up in Mexico City all those years ago we had an annual school trip to Chapultepec Park. There was a zoo and a little lake where you could rent boats and a fun house with funny mirrors. We always had some “free time” to play and then we would trek up the hill. We would have an official tour of the castle and in the early years, we actually walked through the bedrooms and imagined how it must have been. It was not in very good shape. Later on it was renovated and eventually the museum was expanded. We would often have to write short reports on what we had seen and the history behind it.

Every year on May 5th, the American 1939 movie “Juarez” was on Mexican TV. Bette Davis played Princess Charlotte and she was wonderful. It was a classic and I made sure I watched it every year. I felt sorry for the European Emperor and his wife but the triumph over the French every year was exciting!!

Viva Mexico!