What Is Cinco de Mayo?

What does the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo actually commemorate?

With a history steeped in battles and rebuilding, Mexico has earned every right to be proud. May 5th marks a Mexican holiday that more and more people celebrate every year in the United States, many not knowing the reason for the festivities: the “Batalla de Puebla” (Battle of Puebla) or “Cinco de Mayo” (Fifth of May).While it may all seem like a huge fiesta now, the history of this holiday is covered in bloodshed and remembrance.

Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not the celebration of Mexico’s independence day. El Grito de la Indepedencia (The Cry of Independence) is held annually on Sept. 16 in honor of Mexico’s independence from Spanish rule in 1810.

Cinco de Mayo celebrates the country’s freedom from a different oppressive European empire: France.

French occupation viciously swept across Mexico after the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Mexico was left ripped to shreds and bankrupt after having suffered incredible defeat against the Americans. By the 1850s, the country was in a state of crisis.

Newly elected President Benito Juarez issued a moratorium on July 17, 1861, to help get a handle on his country’s wrecked economy, according to UCLA’s Chicano and Latino issues resource center.

The moratorium stipulated a hold on all foreign debt payments for the next two years so that Mexico could get out of financial ruin. Payments could resume after the two-year mark, but in the meantime Mexico was forced to default on debts abroad.

England, Spain and France — all of which Mexico owed money to — were furious. According to History.com, all three sent naval ships to Veracruz to demand reimbursement. British and Spanish forces eventually negotiated with Mexico and withdrew, but it was France that decided to take severe action.

Seeing an opportunity to take advantage of a fallen nation, French ruler Napoleon III had hoped to be victorious over the weakened Mexican army and carve out an independent empire for France.

According to UCLA, there is some speculation that the United States’ enactment of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which stated that any European attempts to re-colonize any part of the Americas would be considered an act of war, may have sparked the French invasion frenzy. At the time, the United States’ quick and immense expansion was seen as a threat to other world powers.

In 1862, French Gen. Charles Latrille de Lorencez was ordered to march his forces into Veracruz and attack with 6,000 troops and 2,000 French loyalists headed for Puebla de Los Angeles, just east of Mexico City — Napoleon’s ultimate goal. In response, Juarez gathered up any Mexican loyalists he could find and put together a 4,000-strong, but hackneyed, force against the French. Many were farmers armed with hunting rifles and machetes, according to a PBS report.

For nearly 50 years, the French army had remained undefeated, until they clashed with the Mexican army on May 5, 1862, in Puebla. Led by Texas-born Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza, the outnumbered and poorly supplied Mexican army defeated French forces in what became known as the “Batalla de Puebla.”

According to History.com, the French lost 500 men in a single day, while Mexican forces lost fewer than 100. The victory gave the Mexicans a huge morale boost, and the French withdrew six years later. Puebla de Los Angeles was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the general’s great triumph.

Cinco de Mayo is celebrated widely in the United States with parties and parades. According to UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, surprisingly, the holiday was invented in modern-day California in 1863 and has continued to be celebrated in the United States, but is almost completely ignored in Mexico. Only a few states, including Puebla, recognize it.

Nonetheless, Cinco de Mayo continues to be a strong tradition for Mexican-Americans to express great pride for their homeland, their people and their history.


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