Hundreds of warring Miahuatecos had us trapped against a brick wall in the heart of Miahuatlán de Porfirio Díaz. Over and over again, our unknown assailants attacked with brutal precision and melted back into the crowd before we could respond. We fought back as best we could, trying to hold our fragile position in the zocalo of this rural Oaxacan town, but it was a numbers game – and we were outnumbered by roughly everyone to four.
Before long, our position started to collapse. Surrender, if it was even an option, was near, and that’s when I started to understand the lessons learned at the Alamo.
Chiefly, don’t mess with Mexico. Especially on el 3 de Octubre.
Especially especially when you’re outmanned, outsmarted, and hopelessly out-glittered.
Foreigners Love to do Dumb Stuff in Mexico
On this exact date 152 years before, another group of foreigners met a similar fate in this desert town 100 kilometers south of Ciudad de Oaxaca. In 1866, the French were nominally in charge but faced growing unrest in the region. Emperor Maximilian I, the puppet monarch of the Second French Empire, sent his best troops to quell the rebellion near Miahuatlán.
Local legend has it that the French found the town deserted, until the Miahuatecos flung open their windows and threw down the silver, gold, and other shiny bits that so interested European invaders. The French took this to mean surrender and scrambled to pick up the booty, giving the clever General Porfirio Diaz the break he needed to take out the French trash.
The non-local legend is far more plausible. On the day in question, a French contingent moved in from the north and engaged a group of Mexican cavalry outside the city. The Mexicans fled into town with the French in blind pursuit. This was of course a trap, and the French soon fell under the sights of local Miahuateco sharpshooters. General Diaz was impressed by the local Miahuateco soldiers and described them as “valiant, mostly naked, and drunk,” high praise usually reserved for the Irish.
Foreigners Continue to do Dumb Stuff in Mexico
Miahuatlán sits at the foot of the Sierra Sur mountains – midway between the capital city Oaxaca and the coast. It’s a sleepy place, aside from a thriving drug trade that tends to keep things interesting, but it all changes on el Tres de Octubre. Thousands of people come from the surrounding towns and villages to celebrate the holiday.
As dusk fell, merrymakers gathered in the central zocalo, a large rectangular plaza lined with low-slung buildings and columned walkways, capped off by a large white church on one end. Once the zocalo was packed, a parade of horsemen trotted in to kick start the party. Vaqueros rode around showing off their horses and their women, and those that had no horses or women showed off their tequila and their mezcal.
An enormous pile of speakers pumped brassy banda music from a center stage. If you’re not familiar with banda, it’s essentially a Mexican polka. To the untrained ear, every song sounds pretty much the same, which is to say every song sounds like someone is torturing a flock of tubas. This chaos occasionally spooked the horses, but the riders were experts and not a drop of liquor or woman was lost.
Once the tipsy cavalry cleared, the fighting began. The idea was to commemorate the actual battle with a mock battle of paint and foam. Vendors hawked aerosol cans of foamy soap and hollowed-out eggs filled with colored water, perfume and glitter. Would-be warriors bought the best firepower they could afford and bystanders stepped aside to watch the action unfold. The four of us gueros (gringos) paced the perimeter, bristling with foam and eggs – one of the rare times one can say they “bristled” with foam.
Had we been more aware of the day’s history, we probably wouldn’t have let loose our hounds of war, but we warriors just had to come out and play.
The Beginning of the End
At the start of the battle, we traded foamy blast for foamy blast, though we soon fell victim to vicious run-by soapings. Strangers sprang from nowhere and gave us glittery hell with perfumed soap before darting back into the mob – a frothy ocean of cowboy hats, belt buckles the size of the original Mexico, and moustaches that would shame Sam Elliott. Hopelessly confused, we couldn’t tell friend from foe; we were merely four pale, juicy targets who all-too-accurately represented the invaders of Mexico’s past.
Nonetheless, we fought back and unleashed our own sparkly firepower. In a grievous tactical error, however, we gave up our greatest advantage, mobility, and set up a perimeter near a bust of the victorious General Diaz. Maybe we had an ironic sense of history, or maybe we were just stupid, but either way, the brave Miahuatecos were more than happy to show us what they’d done to the French 152 years before. They were still valiant, and many were still drunk, but they were no longer naked. We didn’t stand a chance.
My button-up shirt with a mountain vista and gold fringed horses became mutated with color. My pants were drenched with soap, glitter, and perhaps lighter fluid. Believe me when I say there are few things more concerning than being neon, flammable, and on the run. My head was so stuffed with foam that visibility was around three inches. A word to the wise – don’t bring glasses to a glitter fight.
The End of the End
Perhaps if the French had fought with glitter, they would have fared better than we did. It is hard to out perfume the French, after all. Nevertheless, we were fortunate that history doesn’t always repeat itself. Especially because this time around, the Miahuatecos weren’t trying to kill anyone. It really does make a difference.
Once our attackers sensed our total defeat, they took pity and gave us mercy. A young girl let me use her sweatshirt long enough to clear my eyes and spy an escape route, which was just the break we needed to retreat in great, glittery haste.
For General Diaz and his army, the battle ended a little differently. After Miahuatlán, they took Oaxaca and moved onto Puebla some 300 km northwest. Puebla opened the road to Mexico City, the nearby home of Maximillian. He promptly lost his kingdom and his head.
We escaped with our heads, though they weren’t necessarily in tact. I spent the rest of the night flushing out my eyes, and my body looked as if I’d been ravaged by a My Little Pony rave.
Such is the price of tangling with Mexico. If only we’d remembered our history.
Colin is a professional writer and an amateur adventurer. He’s lived and worked in Vietnam, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, and the West Bank. He currently lives in Brooklyn, which is kind of like living in another country. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org