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Cinco de Mayo: Not Mexican Independence Day

Cinco de Mayo means two very different things in Mexico and the U.S.

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Today is Cinco de Mayo, or the fifth of May. The holiday is of Mexican origin, but in the United States it is celebrated with parades and get-togethers while in Mexico the day is honored on a much smaller scale. The holiday represents two very different things to the two countries, and 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 victory over France in 1862 at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War.

In 1861, the country was suffering from financial loss after years of strife. It was during this time that Benito Juarez, a lawyer and member of the Zapotec tribe, was elected president. Unfortunately, he felt he had to default on debts owed to European governments, who didn’t take kindly to the slight. Britain, France, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand repayment. Britain and Spain were able to negotiate with Mexico, but Napoleon III, France’s ruler, decided to take the opportunity to gain 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 east-central 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, trying 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 as well as 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 usually observed mostly in Puebla, although some other areas may have scattered events as well. Traditional ceremonies include military parades, festive events, and re-enactments of the battle. It is not recognized as a national holiday, so most businesses remain open.

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 such as tacos and mole poblano, bounce houses for the children, 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, known as the “Grito de Dolores” or “Cry of Dolores,” referring to the city of Dolores Hidalgo.

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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