Today is Cinco de Mayo, or the fifth of May – a holiday of Mexican origin. In the United States it is celebrated with parades and get-togethers while in Mexico the day is honored on a much smaller scale. Contrary to popular belief, May 5 is not the date celebrating Mexican independence.
Cinco de Mayo: Mexico
Cinco de Mayo is the day of Mexico’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War.
In 1861, the country was suffering from financial loss after years of strife. During this time, Benito Juarez was elected president. Unfortunately, he felt he could not pay the country’s debts owed to European governments. Britain, France, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand repayment. Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico, but Napoleon III, France’s ruler, decided to take some Mexican territory instead.
A French fleet stormed Veracruz, forcing President Juarez and his government to retreat. Approximately 6,000 French troops set out to attack the small town of Puebla de Los Angeles while Juarez was able to gather just 2,000 men. The Mexicans fortified the town as much as they could to prepare for the much larger French army. The battle lasted from sunup to early evening, but the Mexican troops were victorious, sending the French to retreat after losing nearly 500 soldiers compared to less than 100 Mexicans.
It was a small battle in the war, but it was a symbol to the Mexican people, and an inspiration. It was also the beginning of the turn of the war, bolstering the resistance and allowing time for the U.S. to help drive the French to withdraw.
Known as the Battle of Puebla Day in Mexico, celebrations are minimal and observed mostly in Puebla. Traditional ceremonies include military parades, festive events, and re-enactments of the battle. It is not recognized as a national holiday.
Cinco de Mayo: U.S.
In the 1960s, Chicano activists started campaigns to bring awareness to Cinco de Mayo. Part of it was because of the Battle of Puebla, although more emphasis was put on the victory of indigenous Mexicans over European invaders.
Today, the holiday is used to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage. It is a day for parades, large gatherings of family and friends with traditional food, Mariachi bands, and folk dancing.
Not Independence Day
There is some confusion about Cinco de Mayo being the same as Mexican independence day, but it is not. Mexican independence was declared more than 50 years before the Battle of Puebla, and the event took place on September 16, 1810, not May 5. On that day, the revolutionary priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla sent a call to arms to declare war against the Spanish colonial government.