Your Guide: The True Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is probably the holiday most often celebrated that no one understands. What’s it all about? How is it celebrated? What does it mean to Mexicans? Here are the answers in a handy guide.

Literally “the Fifth of May,” Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican Holiday celebrating the Battle of Puebla, which took place on May 5, 1862. In 1861, France sent a massive army to invade Mexico, as they wanted to collect on some war debts. The French army was much larger, better trained and equipped than the Mexicans struggling to defend the road to Mexico City. It rolled through Mexico until it reached Puebla, where the Mexicans made a valiant stand, and, against all logic, won a huge victory. It was short-lived, as the French army regrouped and continued; eventually taking Mexico City, but the euphoria of an unlikely victory against overwhelming odds is remembered every May fifth.

Isn’t it Mexico’s Independence Day?:
That’s a common misconception. Mexico celebrates its independence on September 16, because it was on that day in 1810 that Father Miguel Hidalgo took to his pulpit in the village church of the town of Dolores and invited his flock to take up arms and join him in overthrowing Spanish tyranny. Independence Day is a very important holiday in Mexico and not to be confused with Cinco de Mayo.

How Big a Deal is Cinco de Mayo?:
Cinco de Mayo is a big deal in Puebla, where the famous battle took place but it really isn’t as important as most people think. September 16, Independence Day, is a much more important holiday in Mexico. For some reason, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated more in the United States of America, by Mexicans and Americans alike, than it is in Mexico. One theory for why it is more popular in the USA is that at one time, it was celebrated in all of Mexico and by Mexicans living in former Mexican territories such as Texas and California. It was ignored in Mexico after a while but still celebrated north of the border, which never got out of the habit of remembering the famous battle.

How is Cinco de Mayo Celebrated?:
In Puebla and in many USA cities with large Mexican populations, there are parades, dancing and festivals. Traditional Mexican food is often served or sold. Mariachi bands fill town squares, and a lot of Dos Equis and Corona beers are served. It’s a fun holiday, really more about celebrating the Mexican way of life than about remembering a battle which happened 150 years ago. It is sometimes referred to as a “Mexican St. Patrick’s Day.” In the USA, schoolchildren do units on the holiday, decorate their classrooms and try their hand at cooking some basic Mexican foods. All over the world, Mexican restaurants bring in Mariachi bands and offer specials for what’s almost certain to be a packed house.

The Complete History:
During the French-Mexican War, a poorly supplied and outnumbered Mexican army under General Ignacio Zaragoza defeats a French army attempting to capture Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico. Victory at the Battle of Puebla represented a great moral victory for the Mexican government, symbolizing the country’s ability to defend its sovereignty against threat by a powerful foreign nation.

In 1861, the liberal Mexican Benito Juarez 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, 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 Juarez and his government into retreat.

Certain that French victory would come swiftly in Mexico, 6,000 French troops under General Charles Latrille de Lorencez set out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles. From his new headquarters in the north, Juarez rounded up a rag-tag force of loyal men and sent them to Puebla. Led by Texas-born General Zaragoza, the 2,000 Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the French assault. On the fifth of May, 1862, Lorencez drew his army, well-provisioned and supported by heavy artillery, before the city of Puebla and began their assault from the north. The battle lasted from daybreak to early evening, and when the French finally retreated they had lost nearly 500 soldiers to the fewer than 100 Mexicans killed.

Although not a major strategic victory in the overall war against the French, Zaragoza’s victory at Puebla tightened Mexican resistance, and six years later 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 Juarez’ forces. Puebla de Los Angeles, the site of Zaragoza’s historic victory, was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the general. Today, Mexicans celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla as Cinco de Mayo, a national holiday in Mexico.

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