Cinco de Mayo (Spanish for “fifth of May”) is a celebration held on May 5. It is celebrated in the United States and in Mexico, primarily in the state of Puebla, where the holiday is called El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (English: The Day of the Battle of Puebla).
It originated with Mexican-American communities in the American West as a way to commemorate the cause of freedom and democracy during the first years of the American Civil War, and today the date is observed in the United States as a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride. In the state of Puebla, the date is observed to commemorate the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín. Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day—the most important national patriotic holiday in Mexico—which is celebrated on September 16.
Events leading to the Battle of Puebla
Cinco de Mayo has its roots in the French occupation of Mexico, which took place in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the Mexican Civil War of 1858, and the 1860 Reform Wars. These wars left the Mexican Treasury nearly bankrupt. On July 17, 1861, Mexican President Benito Juárez issued a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand reimbursement. Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew, but France, at the time ruled by Napoleon III, decided to use the opportunity to establish a Latin empire in Mexico that would favor French interests, the Second Mexican Empire.
Late in 1861, a well-armed French fleet stormed Veracruz, landing a large French force and driving President Juárez and his government into retreat. Moving on from Veracruz towards Mexico City, the French army encountered heavy resistance from the Mexicans close to Puebla, at the Mexican forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. The 8,000-strong French army attacked the much smaller and poorly equipped Mexican army of 4,500. Yet, on May 5, 1862, the Mexicans managed to decisively crush the French army, then considered “the premier army in the world”.
The victory represented a significant morale boost to the Mexican army and the Mexican people at large. In the description of The History Channel, “Although not a major strategic win in the overall war against the French, Zaragoza’s success at Puebla represented a great symbolic victory for the Mexican government and bolstered the resistance movement.” As Time magazine recently noted, “The Puebla victory came to symbolize unity and pride for what seemed like a Mexican David defeating a French Goliath.” It helped establish a much-needed sense of national unity and patriotism.
Events after the battle
The Mexican victory, however, was short-lived. Thirty thousand troops and a full year later, the French were able to defeat the Mexican army, capture Mexico City, and install Emperor Maximilian I as ruler of Mexico. However, the French victory was also short-lived, lasting only three years, from 1864 to 1867. By 1865, “with the American Civil War now over, the U.S. began to provide more political and military assistance to Mexico to expel the French”. Upon the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War, Napoleon III, facing a persistently tenacious Mexican guerilla resistance, the threat of war with Prussia, and “the prospect of a serious scrap with the United States”, retreated from Mexico starting in 1866. The Mexicans recaptured Mexico City, and Maximilian I was apprehended and executed, along with his Mexican generals Miramón and Mejía, in the Cerro de las Campanas, Querétaro. “On June 5, 1867, Benito Juarez finally entered Mexico City where he installed a legitimate government and reorganized his administration.”
The Battle of Puebla was important for at least two reasons. First, although considerably outnumbered, the Mexicans defeated a much better-equipped French army. “This battle was significant in that the 4,000 Mexican soldiers were greatly outnumbered by the well-equipped French army of 8,000 that had not been defeated for almost 50 years.” Second, since the Battle of Puebla, no country in the Americas has subsequently been invaded by any other European military force.
Consequences to the United States
Some historians have argued that France’s real goal was to help break up the American Union, at the time in the midst of a civil war, by helping the southern Confederacy.
Donald W. Miles states, “At the time, there were fears in the United States that the French would use Mexico as a base to back the Confederacy, so President Lincoln and his Secretary of State went out of their way to appear ‘neutral’ in the Mexican situation. They did not want to take on the French and the Confederates at the same time”. Dr. Miles goes on to explain that “Napoleon III had hesitated to take on the United States directly, but now the news of the Civil War changed everything”. It meant that the Americans would be occupied with their conflict between North and South for some time. Upon hearing the Spaniards and the British had sailed off to grab the customs house in Veracruz to start collecting their duties, Napoleon decided he would not only send the French navy, but would also start looking for someone to place as emperor in Mexico. He would then use Mexico as a base to help the Confederates win their war against the United States. Napoleon saw this as an opportunity not to be missed.
Historian Justo Sierra has written in his Political Evolution of the Mexican People, that had Mexico not defeated the French in Puebla on May 5, 1862, France would have gone to the aid of the South in the U.S. Civil War and the United States’ destiny could have been very different.
Ignacio Gonzalez wrote, “Some scholars, including José Antonio Burciaga, believe that had the French defeated México at Puebla, France would have aided the South in the American Civil War in order to free Southern ports of the Union Blockade. During this time, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was enjoying success, and French intervention could have had an impact on the Civil War.”
History of the holiday
The American Cinco de Mayo celebration originated in the Mexican-American communities of the American West, Southwest, and Northwest in the 1860s. Mexicans and Latinos living in California during the American Civil War are credited with being the first to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the United States. It grew in popularity and evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, first in areas with large Mexican-American populations, like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. Eventually it expanded across the United States. On June 7, 2005, the U.S. Congress issued a Concurrent Resolution calling on the President of the United States to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate ceremonies and activities.
According to a paper published by the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture about the origin of the observance of Cinco de Mayo in the United States, the modern American focus on that day first started in California in the 1860s in response to the resistance to French rule in Mexico. “Far up in the gold country town of Columbia (now Columbia State Park) Mexican miners were so overjoyed at the news that they spontaneously fired off rifles shots and fireworks, sang patriotic songs and made impromptu speeches.” A 2007 UCLA Newsroom article notes that “The holiday, which has been celebrated in California continuously since 1863, is virtually ignored in Mexico.” TIME magazine reports that “Cinco de Mayo started to come into vogue in 1940s America during the rise of the Chicano movement.” The holiday crossed over from California into the rest of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s but didn’t gain popularity until the 1980s when marketers, especially beer companies, capitalized on the celebratory nature of the day and began to promote it.
In a 1998 study in the Journal of American Culture it was reported that there were more than 120 official U.S. celebrations of Cinco de Mayo, and they could be found in 21 different states. An update in 2006, found that the number of official Cinco de Mayo events was 150 or more, according to José Alamillo, professor of ethnic studies at Washington State University in Pullman, who has studied the cultural impact of Cinco de Mayo north of the border.
In the United States Cinco de Mayo has taken on a significance beyond that in Mexico. To celebrate, many display Cinco de Mayo banners while school districts hold special events to educate pupils about its historical significance. Special events and celebrations highlight Mexican culture, especially in its music and regional dancing. Examples include baile folklórico and mariachi demonstrations held annually at the Plaza del Pueblo de Los Angeles, near Olvera Street. Commercial interests in the United States have capitalized on the celebration, advertising Mexican products and services, with an emphasis on beverages, foods, and music.
“Public memory of the Cinco de Mayo was socially, and deliberately, constructed during the American Civil War by Latinos responding to events and changes around them,” says historian David E. Hayes-Bautista. “The Cinco de Mayo is not, in its origins, a Mexican holiday at all but rather an American one, created by Latinos in California in the middle of the 19th century.” The key events were taking place in Mexico in response to a French invasion.
On 9 May 1862, President Juárez declared that the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla would be a national holiday regarded as “Battle of Puebla Day” or “Battle of Cinco de Mayo”.
Although Mexican citizens feel very proud of the meaning of Cinco de Mayo, it is not a national holiday in Mexico but it is an official holiday in the State of Puebla, where the Battle took place. However, all public schools are closed nation-wide in Mexico on May 5. It is also a full holiday (no work) in the neighboring state of Veracruz.
Events tied to Cinco de Mayo also occur outside Mexico and the United States. As in the United States, celebrations elsewhere also emphasize Mexican cuisine, culture and music. For example, Windsor, Ontario, holds an American-style “Cinco de Mayo Street Festival”, some Canadian pubs play Mexican music and serve Mexican food and drink, and a sky-diving club near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, holds a Cinco de Mayo skydiving event, In the Cayman Islands, in the Caribbean, there is an annual Cinco de Mayo air guitar competition. and at Montego Bay, Jamaica, there is a Cinco de Mayo celebration. The city of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, holds an annual Mexican Festival to honor the day, and celebrations are held in London and New Zealand. American-style celebrations of the day can also be found in Paris. Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in Tokyo, Japan in Yoyogi Park Event Space as a celebration of all the Americas and not just Mexican culture.