It might not seem like I edit myself, but every now and then I figure I’ve gone too far. When I was writing the Cocktails and Capers chapter about El Santo, Blue Demon, and the evolution of masked Mexican wrestler movies, I read several times that the fighting style of lucha libre was developed during a period in Mexican history known politely as “the French Intervention.” You do not need to know anything about the French Intervention to understand lucha libre or Blue Demon punching a werewolf in the face, but that didn’t stop me from going off on a tangent about it, especially when I learned about something called “The Pastry War.”
Alas, to keep the book to a reasonable length and not completely lose readers, I ended up cutting the pages about this strange period in history that involves pastries, war, a French Empire in North America, the Foreign Legion, and the further adventures of General Antonio López de Santa Anna. But such a story, having birthed among other things Cinco de Mayo and lucha libre, still seems worth telling, so here it is: the story of how France attempted to conquer Mexico and used pastry as the pretense.
The French Intervention
In 1838, the Pastry War erupted when France invaded Mexico. It started because a French pastry chef by the name of Remontel, who was working in Mexico City at the time, had his shop ruined by looting Mexican soldiers. Mexico was only in its second decade of independence from Spain, and the country had experienced a little trouble settling down into a cohesive national whole. Different factions vied for control of the fledgling government, resulting in widespread civil unrest and occasional flare-ups of violence. During such times, it was not uncommon for property to get damaged and for victims of such damage to discover they had no recourse for seeking compensation. There was barely a government to begin with, let alone one that could manage the nitty-gritty of municipal complaints and civil suits. So it was that pastry chef Remontel found himself unable to obtain recompense for his damaged shop from the local Mexican authorities, whoever they might have been on that day. A stranger in a strange land, he did what many foreign nationals in Mexico were doing when experiencing such setbacks: he appealed to his own government, an appeal that eventually wound its way to the ears of the French king himself, Louis-Philippe.
Mexico already owed France a heavy sum, and this insult to the French confectionary arts was the final straw. King Louis-Phillipe slapped Mexico with a 600,000 piastres fine, figuring that the aggrieved pastry chef was functionally an international trader and thus protected under international trade agreements. Mexico was already in the hole to France for millions, so they must have figured what was 600,000 piastres more? They blew off French diplomat Baron Antoine Louis Deffaudis, who had delivered the ultimatum. France responded to this default by sending its fleet to blockade Mexican ports, bombard the fortress of San Juan de Ulua, and seize the city of Veracruz. Pastry: the single most French reason ever to go to war.
Facing primarily a naval attack, Mexico expected San Juan de Ulua to weather the storm and protect Veracruz. It did not. It and later the city fell to French forces, prompting Mexico to officially declare war on France. In response to the French assault and occupation of the fort and city, Mexico called old General Antonio López de Santa Anna, still smarting after his defeat in the Texas Revolution, out of retirement and had him arrange the counter-attack to retake Veracruz. He failed, and lost a leg in the process, which turned him into a hero despite the ultimate lack of success. Aware now that it was unlikely to score a victory over France that wasn’t costly, Mexico sued for peace. In the end, no doubt rolling their eyes at the whole affair, Great Britain stepped in and brokered a ceasefire, forcing the Mexican government to pay for the damages to Remontel’s pastry shop. French forces withdrew on March 9th, 1839. But they didn’t stay withdrawn.
In 1861, Mexico once again defaulted on loans from France. But this time, they also defaulted on loans from Great Britain and Spain. The three European powers decided enough was enough and formed an alliance committed to collecting the debt. In December, the three fleets (The United States, which had played a minor role in the Pastry War on the side of long-time ally France, had its own problems to deal with in 1861) arrived to kick around Veracruz once again. And once again, the city fell, this time to the Spanish while the French fleet seized the port city of Campeche. Around that time, French general Charles de Lorencez showed up with an entire French army, something neither Spain nor Britain had been expecting and certainly something it had been proven wasn’t necessary for slapping Mexico around a little until it paid up. Turns out, they discovered, that France (now under the leadership of emperor Napoleon III, neither the democracy of the French Revolution nor the restoration of the monarchy after the first Napoleon having lasted very long) had more in mind than just holding Mexico upside down and shaking it until its pockets emptied.
Napoleon III didn’t want Mexican money; he wanted Mexico. Unwilling to spend time, resources, and men on Napoleon III’s dreams of North American conquest, Britain and Spain withdrew. This time around, Mexico managed to score a few victories against the French land forces, defeating them at the now-famous Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862—Cinco de Mayo. But the French still held the important port town of Veracruz, and soon they were able to lay siege to Puebla, turning the Mexican victory into a no-holds-barred rematch. Among the battles that took place during this period was the Battle of Camarón, the crucible in which the French Foreign Legion (formed in 1831) forged its reputation. Led by a one-handed captain named Jean Danjou (hey, if Santa Anna can have one leg, and Stonewall Jackson can lose an arm, why not?), a patrol of 62 Legionnaires and their three officers found themselves under attack by some 3,000 Mexican troops.
Against hopeless odds, the Legionnaires set up a defense in a place called Hacienda Camarón. Danjou was killed in the fighting. With ammunition exhausted and the overwhelming Mexican forces closing in around them, the Legionnaires fixed bayonets and continued fighting. By the end of the battle, only three survived and what should have been a Mexican victory became a rallying point for the French. The Legion still celebrates Camerone Day. One has to think that by this point, after having dealt with the same shit at the Alamo in 1836, Mexico was getting really tired of suicidal stands by tiny forces of colorful characters.
Worse was yet to come for Mexico. Puebla surrendered in May. In June, the French took Mexico City, and the Mexican president and his staff fled to Chihuahua. The French set up a provisional government, declared Mexico a new (French satellite) empire, and at Napoleon III’s behest crowned Austrian Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph as Maximilian I, Emperor of Mexico (and puppet of Napoleon III). It wasn’t exactly a plum position. For starters, Maximilian proved too liberal for many Mexican right-wingers and too…well, “invading monarch” for Mexico’s liberals. Plus there was the fact that, technically, there was still another Mexican government out there, and they still had an army prone to engaging French forces in continued combat. Sometimes, they were even victorious.
And while the United States was too occupied with the Civil War to intervene militarily for one side or the other, President Lincoln made it clear that, despite the long-time alliance between France and the United States (Union troops were marching to war basically wearing copies of French uniforms), he and the whole country (north and south) were uncomfortable with the invasion and the establishment of a European empire south of the border. Like many other countries, the US refused to recognize the legitimacy of Maximilian I’s reign. As the Civil War came to a close, someone even floated the idea of reconciling the north and the south via a joint session of beating up on the new guy, though nothing ever came of it.
Napoleon III, recognizing the importance of the relationship between the US and France, sought to appease the Americans by agreeing to withdraw French troops from Mexican soil, leaving Maximillian I high and dry. Without the might of France behind him, there wasn’t much hope for ol’ Max, but against the wishes of Napoleon, he refused to give up the folly. In November of 1867, the last of the French soldiers withdrew from Mexico. Maximilian did not go with them. A few months later, in June of 1868, he was in front of a Mexican firing squad. Despite pleas from many governments to show a little clemency and let bygones be bygones, Mexico wanted to send a clear message to Europe that any further attempts at conquest would be unwelcome.
It was during this period that a Mexican by the name of Enrique Ugartechea started developing a style of wrestling free from the detailed restrictions of classical Greco-Roman wrestling. This free-style wrestling became known as lucha libre in Spanish. It was a local affair with occasional rivalries between neighboring towns. But there was no real league, no national sport, and certainly no masked wrestlers. Such fighters would eventually become the faceless face of lucha libre, but in the 1860s, if you wanted to find a masked wrestler, you had to look, ironically, to France…
…and at this point, you should buy the book!