Cinco De Mayo: The History & Celebrations

Cinco de Mayo means the 5th of May in Spanish. However, at least (and especially) in the United States, it also means a lot of partying and celebrating Mexican culture.

It’s also a day to recognize Mexican independence, right? No – but that’s a common misconception.

“A new survey released by NationalToday.com shows only 10% of Americans know the true reason for the event,” said a May 2018 nbc24 article. The survey asked 1,000 Americans and “39% of respondents said they believed the holiday serves as Mexican Independence Day. That’s actually observed on September,[sic] 16. Another 26% of those surveyed think Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of Mexican-American culture, according to the survey. 13% of people thought it was just an excuse to drink.”

So what’s the real reason behind the May 5 holiday? It actually celebrates Mexico’s victory over France in the 1862 Battle of the Puebla, which was part of the French-Mexican War (1861-1867). Thus, May 5 is also known as the “Battle of Puebla Day.”

Why did the French-Mexican War start?

In 1861, Mexico was in financial ruin due to years of internal strife. However, at the same time, they also owed a lot of money to Britain, Spain and France.

So, during that year, the three European countries sent in naval forces to Veracruz, Mexico. Britain and Spain managed to negotiate deals with Mexico, so they left.

However, France had a different approach. Napoleon III, the current ruler, wanted to make a French empire in Mexico, so he took advantage of the situation and in late 1861, the French army (which was one of the strongest in the world at the time) stormed Velacruz, forcing President Benito Juárez and the government to move north.

Mexican naval artillery shooting against French vessel La Lance in Tampico harbour. Tampico old view from lake bank, Mexico. Created by Lebreton, published on L'illustration, Paris, 1863

Shutterstock (Marzolino)

The history of the Battle of the Puebla

Yet, the battle itself didn’t happen until the next year. The French general, Charles Latrille de Lorencez, planned to attack Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico, with an army of 6,000 troops.

General Ignacio Zaragoza anticipated the attack, so he and President Juárez managed to cobble together 2,000 men to form the Mexican troops. Led by Zaragoza, the army went to Puebla to prepare for the battle.

The battle was fought on May 5, 1862, from daybreak to early evening. At the end of the day, the French army had lost almost 500 soldiers, while Mexico had lost less than 100.

French intervention in Mexico: assault to Puebla prison by French army soldiers. Created by Gaildrau, published on L'Illustration, Paris, 1863

Shutterstock (Marzolino)

According to a history.com article, Mexico’s win “represented a great symbolic victory for the Mexican government and bolstered the resistance movement” against the French occupation.

Unfortunately, just months after the battle, Zaragoza died of typhoid fever. However, Puebla de Los Angeles was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza to honor him and recognize the success of the Mexican army.

However, in the end, the battle was a small success in the greater French-American war – according to a National Geographic article, “the French returned to capture Puebla and Mexico City in 1863.” Additionally, in 1864, Napoleon III made Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian the emperor of Mexico.

Finally, in 1867, with the help of the U.S. (who was busy with their own war – the Civil War – from April 1861 to April 1865), Mexican troops were able to overthrow the government, capture and kill Maximilian, kick the French out and take back their country.

Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Mexico

Cinco de Mayo isn’t a big deal in Mexico – it’s mostly celebrated in Puebla de Zaragoza, where the battle happened. They remember the day with military parades and re-creations of the battle.

YouTube (CGTN America) YouTube (CGTN America)

However, for most Mexicans, it’s just another day. It’s not a federal holiday, so most businesses are open and operating as usual.

Yet, Cinco de Mayo is still a day of pride for them. According to the National Geographic article, “For Mexicans in Puebla, as well as Mexican-Americans in the United States, it has become a complex symbol of Mexican culture, resilience, and character.”

Cinco de Mayo celebrations in America

The holiday is actually primarily celebrated in the U.S. In the ’60s, Chicano and Latino activists raised awareness of the holiday in the U.S. – they identified with the indigenous Mexicans that fought in the battle.

Since then, it’s been a big celebration in the nation. According to the history.com article, “[I]n the United States, Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a commemoration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in areas with large Mexican-American populations.”

CINCO DE MAYO FESTIVAL FLORIDA USA - CIRCA 2014 - Cinco De Mayo Festival dancers performing in the town square of The Villages in Florida USA

Shutterstock (Peter Titmuss)

However, restaurants, retailers and liquor companies also saw Cinco de Mayo as a marketing opportunity, so it became a huge drinking (especially beer) holiday as well.

“Today, Americans drink more beer on Cinco de Mayo than Super Bowl Sunday or St. Patrick’s Day,” a Business Insider article said. “In 2015, they spent $735 million on beer during the week of Cinco de Mayo.” The article continued to say that in 2017, Corona turned the Times Square New Year’s Eve ball into a lime, which was then ‘dropped’ on Cinco de Mayo.

However, Cinco de Mayo is also celebrated with “parades, parties, mariachi music, Mexican folk dancing and traditional foods such as tacos and mole poblano,” the history.com article said. “Some of the largest festivals are held in Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.”

Chicago, Illinois, USA - May 07, 2017, The Cinco De Mayo Parade is held to remember the victory the Mexican forces had over the invading French army in the Battle of Puebla on 5 May, 1862.

Shutterstock (Roberto Galan)

While Cinco de Mayo is most widely celebrated in America, the Business Insider article noted that there have been a few celebrations in Brisbane, Australia, as well as the Cayman Islands, Canada and Malta.

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