The Story of Cinco de Mayo

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From the Edhat staff

In many parts of the United States, Cinco de Mayo (or May 5th) is celebrated with half-price beer and tacos in homage to our southern neighbors.

However, if you’re strolling down State Street and asking someone holding a modelo what today actually represents, you might get this answer: “It’s Mexico’s Independence Day.” Wrong. In fact, Mexico doesn’t often celebrate May 5 outside of a small town.

May 5th is officially known as the day of the Battle of Puebla when the Mexican army defeated France in battle on May 5th, 1862 in a municipality called Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War.

Benito Juárez, a lawyer and member of the indigenous Zapotec tribe, was elected President of Mexico in 1861. The country was struggling financially when Juárez took office, and he was forced to default on debt payments to European governments. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz, Mexico, demanding repayment. According to History.com, Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew their troops.

France, ruled by Napoleon III, decided to take over parts of Mexico’s territory. In late 1861, a heavily armed French army landed in Veracruz, forcing President Juárez and his government to retreat. About 6,000 French troops attacked Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico. Juárez gathered 2,000 loyal men, many of them indigenous Mexicans, and sent them to Puebla.

The Mexican forces were outnumbered and poorly supplied, but they fortified the city, led by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza. On May 5, 1862, France’s heavy artillery attacked the city. By the end of the day, France withdrew after losing almost 500 soldiers while fewer than 100 Mexicans had been killed.

“The Second Battle of Puebla” (General Bazaine attacks the Fort of San Xavier during the Siege of Puebla, March 29, 1863 / Wikipedia)

Although Mexico did not win the war, the battle was a symbolic victory and strengthened Mexican resistance. France regrouped and a year later won the Second Battle of Puebla, overthrowing the capital and forcing President Juárez into exile. The Second Empire of Mexico was established in 1864 when Napoleon proclaimed the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian of Austria Emperor. Later that same year, the Archduke was captured and executed by Juárez’s forces, and Puebla de Los Angeles was renamed after General Zaragoza, who died of typhus months after his historic triumph there.

Within Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is primarily observed in the state of Puebla. Traditions include military parades, re-enactments of the Battle of Puebla, and other festive events. For many Mexicans, however, May 5th is a day like any other: It is not a national holiday, so offices, banks and shops remain open.

The most important national patriotic holiday in Mexico is Independence Day on September 16, which commemorates the 1810 “Cry of Dolores” gun call that started the Revolutionary War. Mexico also celebrates the climax of the eleven-year war of independence on September 27th.

Today, as you eat chips and salsa, remember the exact story of that triumphant battle.

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