Most of us in the United States celebrate Cinco de Mayo with Mexican food and margaritas, but the history of the holiday may not be known to many.
Cinco de Mayo literally means “May 5th” in Spanish and commemorates the date of the Mexican Army’s victory over France on May 5, 1862 at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War, according to the History Channel.
While the holiday in Mexico is actually relatively minor, according to history.com in the United States, it provides an opportunity for communities to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage, especially in areas with large Mexican-American populations.
However, a common misconception is that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day. It is not.
It actually resembles a single battle, according to information from history.com. In 1861, Benito JuÃ¡rez – a lawyer and member of the indigenous Zapotec tribe – was elected President of Mexico.
Back then, after years of internal struggle, the country was in financial ruin and the new president was forced not to pay the debt to European governments.
In response, France, Great Britain and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz, Mexico to demand repayment. Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew their troops.
France, however, that of Napoleon III. decided to take the opportunity to build an empire out of Mexican territory.
At the end of 1861, a well-armed French fleet stormed Veracruz, landed a large number of troops and drove President JuÃ¡rez and his government to withdraw.
Sure that success would come quickly, 6,000 French soldiers under General Charles Latrille de Lorencez set out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico.
From his new headquarters in the north, JuÃ¡rez assembled a ragged troop of 2,000 loyal men – many of them either Indigenous Mexicans or of mixed race – and sent them to Puebla.
The outnumbered and ill-supplied Mexicans, led by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza, fortified the city and prepared for the French attack.
On May 5, 1862, Lorencez assembled his army – supported by heavy artillery – in front of the city of Puebla and led an attack.
The battle lasted from dawn to early evening, and by the time the French withdrew, they had lost nearly 500 soldiers. Less than 100 Mexicans were killed in the clash.
Although Zaragoza was not a major strategic victory in the overall war against the French, Zaragoza’s success at the Battle of Puebla on May 5 represented a major symbolic victory for the Mexican government and strengthened the resistance movement.
In 1867, France finally withdrew, thanks in part to military support and political pressure from the United States, which was finally able to help its beleaguered neighbor after the end of the civil war.
In the same year, the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, who was appointed Emperor of Mexico by Napoleon in 1864, was captured and executed by the forces of JuÃ¡rez.
Puebla de Los Angeles was renamed after General Zaragoza, who died of typhus there months after his historic triumph.
Within Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is mainly observed in the state of Puebla, where the unlikely victory of Zaragoza took place, although other parts of the country also participate in the celebration.
Traditions include military parades, replicas of the Battle of Puebla, and other festive events.
For many Mexicans, however, May 5th is a day like any other: It’s not a federal holiday, so offices, banks, and shops remain open.
Why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the United States
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is widely interpreted as a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, especially in areas with sizable Mexican-American populations.
Chicano activists drew attention to the holiday in the 1960s, also because they identified with the victory of indigenous Mexicans (such as Juarez) over European invaders during the Battle of Puebla.
Today night owls celebrate the occasion with parades, parties, mariachi music, Mexican folk dancing and traditional foods like tacos and mole poblano.
Some of the biggest festivals take place in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.