History of Cinco de Mayo

History of Cinco de Mayo

Due to the need to stay at home to stop the spread of Covid-19, many of the festivals and events we enjoy have been postponed or canceled. That doesn’t, however, mean the reason for celebrating some of them has taken a holiday. Take, for example, Cinco de Mayo. This day is likely more of an event in the US than it is in Mexico, but the history behind it is an important part of Mexico’s story. And a reason to celebrate the triumph of the little guy over the big army.

Cinco de Mayo, unlike what many think, isn’t a celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day. It is, instead, the day Mexicans commemorate the victory of a small army over the larger French forces of Napoleon III at the Battle of Puebla.  And the whole fight started over an unpaid debt.

When Benito Juarez became president in 1861, Mexico was in dire financial straits thanks to years of internal strife. Once elected, Juarez was forced to default on the debts Mexico owed to several other countries. Though they sent naval forces to confront Juarez, Great Britain and Spain withdrew when the president negotiated a settlement with them. Napoleon III, however, had other ambitions.

Hoping to create a French empire in Mexican territory, the French leader sent his fleet to Veracruz, forcing Juarez and his people to retreat. Six thousand French troops under the command of General Charles Latrille de Lorencez pushed into Mexico, intent on attacking a small town named Puebla de Los Angeles. Desperate, Juarez rounded up a small force of two thousand mostly indigenous Mexicans and sent them to Puebla to meet Napoleon’s forces. 

Commanded by General Ignacio Zaragoza, the Mexican soldiers were greatly outnumbered and had few supplies, but on arrival in the small town they set to the task of preparing for battle. The French army arrived on May 5, 1862. The fight was over by early evening, with the French forces routed and less than a hundred of the Mexican army lost.

The Battle of Puebla was more of a symbolic than a strategic victory but it energized Mexican resistance to French conquest. Several more years would pass before Mexico, with the help of the United States, would be able to get the French to withdraw from their country.

Today, although it isn’t an official holiday, Mexicans in the state of Puebla still hold parades and festivities to celebrate Zaragoza and his soldiers’ unexpected victory. In the US, the day is seen as a way to celebrate Mexican culture and history and it’s marked with mariachi music, Mexican folk dancing, and traditional foods.