Cinco de Mayo isn’t what you think it is

4 min read

In recent years, the celebration of Cinco de Mayo has become increasingly popular throughout the United States. While the holiday affords many Americans a fun night to socialize and drink with friends, there are a lot of details about the holiday that the average American simply isn’t aware of. The holiday and the events surrounding it don’t appear in most school textbooks in the United States. Here’s what you need to know:

It isn’t Mexican Independence Day
Somewhere along the way, the idea that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day took off in the U.S., but that’s not what the holiday is about. Mexico’s equivalent of our Fourth of July actually falls on Sept. 16. Cinco de Mayo comemorates the date of a significant battle in a war with France, but before we get to that battle, we need to cover a little bit of the back story.

It all started with wars and debt
In 1861, right about the time the American Civil War was starting, Mexico was flat broke. The country was broke due to two wars, The Mexican-American War and The Reform War. The debt from these wars crippled the Mexican economy, leading Mexico’s president, Benito Juarez to suspend debt repayments to other countries. One can imagine how this went over with the nations of Britain, Spain and France, who promptly sent their navy over to inform the Mexican government that it was time to pay up.

France Didn’t Leave
England and Spain were able to reach an agreement with Mexico and left. France on the other hand was led at the time by a guy named Napolean III, and if you know just a little bit about French history, you can see the turn this story is about to take. France decided to use force to get satisfaction out of Mexico and French troops set out toward a town called Puebla in May of 1862. This brings us to Cinco de Mayo.

A Severely Outnumbered Mexican Army Won the Battle of Puebla
On May 5, 1862, 6,000 french troops met 2,000 Mexican troops at Puebla and fought for most of the day. Eventually, France retreated. The victory itself was short-lived, as the French conquered Mexico within the year, but it was the fighting spirit of the troops at Puebla that inspired a new sense of national pride among the Mexican citizens.

France Didn’t Stay Long
France’s reign in Mexico lasted roughly three years. At the end of the American Civil War, the United States realized they couldn’t have the French that close to their borders and helped Mexico rid itself of its captors.

Cinco de Mayo may have shaped the U.S. Civil War
There is a bit of alternate history speculation surrounding the battle of Cinco de Mayo that comes from historian Justo Sierra. He speculates that if France had won the battle of Puebla, it would have gone on to eventually ally with the Confederacy, which could have changed the outcome of the Civil War or possibly prolonged it. Either way, a different outcome at Puebla could have had a significant impact on U.S. history.

Cinco de Mayo isn’t as popular in Mexico as it is in the United States
Since it isn’t Mexico’s Independence Day and it commemorates one battle in a war that Mexico ultimately lost, the holiday isn’t as big of a deal in Mexico as it is in the U.S. In Mexico, it is often celebrated with military parades as a military holiday. In the U.S., the holiday means something quite different. In the U.S., Cinco De Mayo has morphed into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage.

Tamayo Restaurant Tamarind Margarita” by nan palmero is licensed under CC BY