Cinco de Mayo has become a cultural phenomenon in the U.S. For most Americans, it translates into drinking margaritas or Mexican beer, eating Mexican food, and listening to traditional Mexican music.
Many Americans often mistake Cinco de Mayo to be a celebration of Mexican independence. Cinco de Mayo is actually a celebration of a failed invasion in 1861 by the French after the newly created Mexican state defaulted on its debt payments to European governments. At the time, Mexico was suffering financial ruin as a result of years of internal strife and had defaulted on debts with France, England, and Spain.
While Spain and England entered into successful negotiations with the Mexican government, Napoleon III, the French president, thought that it offered him a great opportunity to attempt to build an empire in Mexico. Well-armed French forces invaded Mexico at Veracruz, forcing the government and its forces to flee into Northern Mexico.
Capitalizing on their success, the French then turned their attention on the city of Puebla de Los Ángeles. However, the Mexican president, Benito Juarez, pulled together a force of about 2,000 men to fight the French, many of whom were indigenous Mexicans or mestizos. On May 5, 1862, the French launched their attack, the battle lasting from daybreak into the early evening. In the end, the French were bested by the Mexican forces, losing 500 soldiers, while the Mexicans lost less than 100.
Unfortunately, the victory was more of a symbolic one because the French did not leave Mexico until 1867 when the U.S. sent troops in to help its neighbor to the south after the end of the Civil War.
Interestingly enough, Cinco de Mayo is a relatively minor holiday in Mexico and is not celebrated nationwide. While the people in Puebla celebrate, the day is not recognized as a federal holiday. Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16, the anniversary of the day that Mexican priest and revolutionary, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, issued his famous “Grito de Dolores,” a call to arms for his fellow Mexicans to overthrow the Spanish colonial government.
Here in the U.S., Cinco de Mayo was popularized by Chicano activists in the 1960’s as a celebration of Mexican cultural heritage, especially the role that indigenous people played in defeating the French at Pueblo de Los Ángeles. Over the past 50 years or so, the holiday has really gained importance in this country, especially in areas with large Latino populations.
The holiday is celebrated with parades, parties, Mexican folk dancing, mariachi music, and traditional food and drink. Some of the largest Cinco de Mayo celebrations are held in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.