Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday that celebrates the country's victory over France at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. It represents the triumph of Mexico over foreign interference. While the holiday is not a major occasion in most parts of Mexico itself, it has since been transformed by Mexican-Americans into a celebration of Mexican culture and ingenuity. Cinco de Mayo should not be confused for Mexico’s Independence Day, which is celebrated on September 16th and commemorates the 1810 call to arms that started Mexico’s war of liberation from Spain.
Cinco de Mayo’s history begins in 1861 when the president of Mexico, Benito Juarez, temporarily stopped paying back financial debts to foreign countries to instead focus on addressing the damage years of infighting in the country had caused. Great Britain, Spain and France objected to the decision and sent ships to pressure the president to change his mind.
While Mexico was able to negotiate with Spain and Britain, who then pulled back their forces, France under Napoleon III decided to invade the country and create a puppet monarchy instead. The goal was to curb growing American influence in the New World while expanding French control. The French had around 6,000 professional soldiers, while Mexico had a ragtag group of between 2,000 and 4,000 men, most of whom were of indigenous and especially Zapotec heritage.
The Battle of Puebla
France quickly seized the major port city of Vera Cruz, forcing Mexico to fortify the city of Puebla de Los Angeles while bracing for the worst. The French arrived at Puebla on May 5, 1862, and the two armies fought from dusk until dawn. In the end, France suffered somewhere between 500 to 1000 casualties, Mexico saw fewer than 100. The war waged on for five more years, with the Puebla later being captured by the French and then liberated, but in the end, the French were driven from Mexico.
While the first Battle of Puebla wasn’t a decisive victory, it proved that Mexicans could resist foreign powers, and that same year, the would-be Mexican emperor, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, was captured and executed. Puebla de Los Angeles was even renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the commander of the Mexican forces, General Ignacio Zaragoza.
Cinco de Mayo in Mexico
Today, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the state of Puebla with reenactments of the battle, military parades, speeches and more. Since 2012, the city of Puebla also holds its annual International Mole Festival on that day, with exotic kinds of mole sauce from around the world available to try as well as Puebla’s famous mole poblano.
That said, most of the rest of the country does not celebrate it. Cinco de Mayo is not a federal holiday in Mexico, so stores, schools and government offices generally do not close for it.
Cinco de Mayo in the United States
Cinco de Mayo in the United States also wasn’t a major occasion until Mexican-American civil rights activists turned the activity into a celebration of Mexican culture and victory over European invaders. The promotion of Mexican beer and liquor (especially margaritas) also spread the popularity of the holiday. Today, it is often celebrated as much by Americans who aren’t of Mexican heritage as those who are. Parades, folk dancing, mariachi music and traditional (and not so traditional) Mexican foods are often part of celebrations, although the holiday is also sometimes used to reinforce negative Mexican stereotypes by non-Mexican-Americans. Cinco de Mayo is celebrated most widely in places with large Mexican-American populations, such as San Diego, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Houston, Denver, Chicago, New York and Washington D.C.