History of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo—or the fifth of May—commemorates the Mexican army's 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War (1861-1867).

A relatively minor holiday in Mexico in the United States, Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in areas with large Mexican-American populations.

Cinco de Mayo traditions include parades, mariachi music performances and street festivals in cities and towns across Mexico and the United States.

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Battle of Puebla

In 1861 the liberal Mexican Benito Juárez (1806-1872) became president of a country in financial ruin, and he was forced to default on his debts to European governments. In response, France, Britain and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand reimbursement. Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew, but France, ruled by Napoleon III (1808-1873), decided to use the opportunity to carve a dependent empire out of Mexican territory. Late in 1861, a well-armed French fleet stormed Veracruz, landing a large French force and driving President Juárez and his government into retreat.

Certain that success would come swiftly, 6,000 French troops under General Charles Latrille de Lorencez (1814-1892) set out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico. From his new headquarters in the north, Juárez rounded up a rag-tag force of 2,000 loyal men—many of them either indigenous Mexicans or of mixed ancestry—and sent them to Puebla. Led by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza (1829-1862), the vastly outnumbered and poorly supplied Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the French assault. On May 5, 1862, Lorencez drew his army, well provisioned and supported by heavy artillery, before the city of Puebla and led an assault from the north. The battle lasted from daybreak to early evening, and when the French finally retreated they had lost nearly 500 soldiers. Fewer than 100 Mexicans had been killed in the clash.

Although not a major strategic win in the overall war against the French, Zaragoza's success at Puebla represented a great symbolic victory for the Mexican government and bolstered the resistance movement. Six years later—thanks in part to military support and political pressure from the United States, which was finally in a position to aid its besieged neighbor after the end of the Civil War—France withdrew. The same year, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, who had been installed as emperor of Mexico by Napoleon in 1864, was captured and executed by Juárez's forces. Puebla de Los Angeles was renamed for General Zaragoza, who died of typhoid fever months after his historic triumph there.

After the battle:

The battle of Puebla didn't end the war, didn't defeat the French and was not militarily decisive. However, Mexico's victory at Puebla was a David-defeats-Goliath moment throughout the world and lifted the spirits of Mexican nationalists.

The war proceeded badly for Juarez's government. The French captured Mexico City, put the Mexican army to flight and seated a spare Austrian archduke (Maximilian, who was not in line to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Vienna), on a newly created imperial throne in Mexico City. While the new Emperor Maximilian set about on such important tasks as building royal residences and designing insignia for new imperial orders of nobility, his sponsors the French set out to create a Mexico that would repay its debt to France.

The U.S. was, you might say, otherwise engaged. The Civil War had Washington struggling militarily to maintain national integrity and diplomatically to keep France and Britain neutral. Abraham Lincoln was rooting for Juarez, and the Mexican republic did eventually turn the tide.

By putting up tough resistance to France and eventually winning the war, Mexico kept France from creating an alliance with the Confederacy. Juarez just may have helped save the same American union that had seized Mexico's huge northern territories a generation before.

Cinco de Mayo -- or El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla (the Day of the Battle of Puebla), as it's known in Mexico -- was the beginning of the end of France's Mexican adventure and Maximilian's dreams. The emperor's life ended as he bravely stood in front of a firing squad and shouted -- no doubt in German-accented Spanish -- "Viva Mexico! Viva la independencia!" Interesting stuff, right?

The celebrations:

Cinco de Mayo in Mexico
Within Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is primarily observed in the state of Puebla, where Zaragoza’s unlikely triumph occurred, although other parts of the country also take part in the celebration. Traditions include military parades, recreations of the Battle of Puebla and other festive events. For many Mexicans, however, May 5 is a day like any other: It is not a federal holiday, so offices, banks and stores remain open.

Cinco de Mayo in the United States
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is widely interpreted as a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in areas with substantial Mexican-American populations. Chicano activists raised awareness of the holiday in the 1960s, in part because they identified with the victory of indigenous Mexicans over European invaders during the Battle of Puebla. Today, revelers mark the occasion with parades, parties, mariachi music, Mexican folk dancing and traditional foods such as tacos and mole poblano. Some of the largest festivals are held in Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

Confusion with Mexican Independence Day
Many people outside Mexico mistakenly believe that Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of Mexican independence, which was declared more than 50 years before the Battle of Puebla. That event is commemorated on September 16, the anniversary of the revolutionary priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s famous “Grito de Dolores” (“Cry of Dolores”), a call to arms that amounted to a declaration of war against the Spanish colonial government in 1810.

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