What Really is Cinco de Mayo?

Let’s get one thing straight: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day.  That’s September 16th. But then why do we celebrate with tacos and tequila every year on May 5th?  Well, America’s favorite Mexican holiday actually commemorates the unlikely victory of the Mexican Republic army in the Battle of Puebla against French invaders in 1862.  

After a costly, three-year civil war, the new government of the Second Federal Republic of Mexico, under President Benito Juarez, owed a substantial amount of debt to three major colonial powers: France, Spain, and Britain.  When the Mexican government was unable to repay their debts, the colonial powers sent naval forces to the Mexican city of Veracruz and demanded payment. Juarez negotiated with the Spanish and British, promising that Mexico would repay them as soon as they were financially able.  So, the British and Spanish forces withdrew from Mexico. However, the French, under the leadership of Napoleon III, refused to leave empty handed.  Expecting a swift victory, the French marched toward Mexico City with the intention of installing a puppet monarchy.  The Mexican army, lacking training and equipment, fled to the heavily fortified town of Puebla in late April 1862. Meanwhile, as they continued advancing toward Mexico City, French forces under General Lorencez decided to make a stop in Puebla, believing that the town would be friendly toward the French.  

Lorencez was gravely mistaken.  French forces soon encountered General Ignacio Zaragoza’s ragtag Republic army, largely comprised of mixed race mestizos and Native American men.  The Battle of Puebla lasted nearly all day, depleting the French forces of ammunition.  Eventually, Lorencez’s troops had no choice but to retreat. The Republic of Mexico had scored an unlikely victory, and it quickly became a symbol of Mexican resistance against foreign colonialism.  Only four days later, President Juarez declared Cinco de Mayo a national holiday.    

Although the French successfully overtook Mexico City in 1863, Cinco de Mayo remained a day to celebrate Mexican pride.  Today, military parades, feasts, and reenactments serve to commemorate the battle in the town of Puebla, and modest celebrations take place throughout the rest of Mexico.  

Cinco de Mayo was first celebrated in California in the 1940s at the time of the Chicano movement.  Members of this movement fought for equal rights for Latin Americans in the United States as well as for the recognition and celebration of Latin culture.  During the 1950s and 60s, Cinco de Mayo gained popularity among Latino immigrants throughout the US as a celebration of pride and culture primarily in cities with large Latin American populations like Chicago and Houston.  For better or for worse, since the 1980s, the holiday has been largely overtaken by American commercialism as companies use it as a way to sell copious amounts of Mexican cuisine and alcohol to Americans from all walks who enjoy partying, eating tacos, and getting drunk with their friends… even if they don’t quite know what it is they’re celebrating.


– Claire Reid


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