What is Cinco de Mayo?
On this day 155 years ago, Mexico’s army defeated French forces in the Battle of Puebla. Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of this victory. To observe this holiday, people all over Mexico will go about their daily lives and treat it just like any other day.
Meanwhile, Mexico’s neighbor to the north will take things a little bit further. People in the United States will throw fiestas, celebrate Mexican culture, and perhaps indulge in a cerveza or two (or nine).
Yes, as strange as it might seem, a battle between Mexico and France is actually a bigger deal in the US than it is in the country in which the fighting took place. But why is that?
To get a better idea of what this holiday is all about, let’s start by clearing a few things up about Cinco de Mayo.
What Cinco de Mayo is Not
First things first. Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. This is a common misconception for people living outside of Mexico. September 16th is Mexico’s actual Independence Day, or Día de la Independencia. This date marks the anniversary of a call to arms against the Spanish colonial government made by the revolutionary priest Miguel Hidalgo in 1810.
Now that we have that out of the way, we can get to the real history of Cinco de Mayo.
The Battle of Puebla
The Battle of Puebla occurred years after Mexico gained its independence. Benito Juárez had just been elected president at a time when Mexico was in financial ruin. To aid the economy, Juárez declared a temporary moratorium on the repayment of all foreign debts. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to the port city Veracruz, where Juárez had governed from since 1857, demanding repayment.
Britain and Spain eventually were able to negotiate deals with Mexico, and withdrew their troops. France did not back away so easy. They were growing anxious about the influence the US had in the Americas, and hoped to establish a North American monarchy under Maximilian of Austria. Seeing an opportunity to carve out an empire in Mexican territory, well-armed French forces drove President Juárez and his government into retreat.
The French army, then considered to be the best in the world, marched westward from Veracruz towards Mexico City. Before reaching their destination, they were met with heavy resistance near the small town of Puebla. Juárez had assembled a force of 2,000 loyal soldiers, most of them either indigenous or of mixed ancestry. Though they were outnumbered and poorly equipped, they fought back against the advancing French army.
Led by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza, an inspired Mexican army was able to hold their own against some 6,000 oncoming French troops. By the early evening on May 5th, the French had lost nearly 500 soldiers, while less than 100 Mexicans had been killed. The French would ultimately retreat.
The Battle of Puebla served as a great symbolic victory for the Mexican government and the resistance against France. The battle was not, however, a major strategic win. France would eventually reach Mexico City and install Maximilian of Austria as emperor of Mexico in 1864.
Mexico would not go down that easy though. In 1867, with military support from the United States, who could now help out after the end of the Civil War, Mexico was able to drive out France’s army. Later that year, Emperor Maximilian was captured and executed by Juárez and his men.
Cinco de Mayo Today
Within Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is really only observed in the state of Puebla. Typical celebrations include parades and recreations of the Battle of Puebla, as well as other festive events.
For most Mexicans, however, May 5th is just like any other day. It’s not a federal holiday, so business and offices remain open. A few might celebrate outside of Puebla, but the holiday is nowhere near as significant in Mexico as it is in the US.
Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States date back to the 1860s, when Mexicans in California commemorated the victory. Around the 1960s, during the Civil Rights era, Latino activists began to raise awareness about the holiday. Many Americans could identity with the underdog nature of the victory, and found inspiration in the idea of indigenous forces defeating a much stronger European power.
In the 1980s and 1990s, businesses in the alcohol and restaurant industries began promoting Cinco de Mayo in an effort to attract more Latino consumers. Over time, this holiday became ingrained in American consciousness.
Today, the holiday is celebrated in many different ways, especially in cities and regions with large Latino communities. Some cities will hold parades or festivals. In cities like Los Angeles and Houston, people might attend fiestas with mariachi music. Others might watch people perform Mexican folk dancing, or dine on Mexican or Tex-Mex foods.
An American Holiday
Cinco de Mayo might commemorate a Mexican victory, but it’s popularity in the US serves as a reminder of an intertwined and often complicated history between the US and Mexico. It truly has become a North American holiday. Further proof that everyone loves a good underdog story.
How will you celebrate Cinco de Mayo this year? You can start by earning this tasty badge – Cinco de Mayo
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.