To many Americans, Cinco de Mayo is mostly an excuse to drink imported beer, take shots of tequila, and feast on Mexican food. Ask around and many people will think it is Mexico’s version of America’s Fourth of July.
Critics contend that this tends to perpetuate negative stereotypes of Mexicans and promotes excessive drinking, while missing the important history that Cinco de Mayo represents.
The truth is that Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates a specific battle that marked the beginning of the last invasion of Mexico by a foreign power — the Battle of Puebla de Los Angeles on May 5, 1862. In addition, Mexico actually became a sovereign nation over 50 years earlier and celebrates its Independence Day holiday in September.
The frustration of Mexican citizens at this ignorance is captured by Felipe Garcia, 46, a former resident of San Quentin who said that he “hates it when people think Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican Independence Day. They have no idea that our Independence Day is September 16th.”
Most people know that the Spanish first plundered and colonized Mexico, but it was actually the French who were defeated in the Battle of Puebla de Los Angeles.
In 1861, Mexico defaulted on its repayment of foreign debts due to the burdens of a recent civil war and the Mexican-American War, according to Wikipedia and History. com.
Mexico was able to reach a settlement with Spain and Britain over the debt, but France under Napoleon III had an eye on expanding its empire into “Latin American” and refused the agreement. Instead, French troops invaded Mexico at the eastern port of Veracruz and with plans to march on Mexico City.
However, Mexico’s newly elected president, Benito Juarez, a lawyer and member of the Zapotec tribe, rounded up a ragtag force of several thousand loyal mestizo and Zapotec men and sent them to Puebla de Los Angeles to stop the invaders en route to the capital.
The battle lasted from daybreak to early evening, and despite being outnumbered two to one, the poorly equipped Mexican soldiers were led to a clear victory by the Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza. Over 500 French troops were killed in the initial battle, compared to only 100 Mexican casualties. The vaunted French army had only lost one other battle over the previous 50 years of conquests around the globe.
The war continued and a larger force of French troops later won the second battle of Puebla and took Mexico City in 1864. However, France withdrew its troops in 1866 due to mounting losses and because the U.S. was emerging from its Civil War and providing increasing aid to Mexico.
In an interesting footnote to history, had France quickly conquered Mexico as Napoleon planned, he would have provided support to the Confederate States in the American Civil War, which may have altered the course of U.S. history.
Even though the second battle of Puebla was lost, the initial victory at Puebla became a powerful symbol of Mexican resistance to foreign domination.
“Cinco de Mayo symbolizes hope and determination, reminding us that anything is possible if we work together,” is one popular quote in Mexico about the event collected by Tuko.com. “The battle of Cinco de Mayo teaches us that even in the most challenging circumstances we can overcome and triumph,” is another.
Celebrations to commemorate the victory at Puebla first started in San Francisco, according to an article in The Journal of American Folklore. In 1863, an entrepreneur sponsored a Cinco de Mayo dance, and this tradition of private dance celebrations continued into the 1950’s.
Since then, Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a public commemoration of not just Mexican nationalism but the bi-cultural heritage of Mexican immigrants and the broader pan-Latin movement that includes Central Americans.
In the 1960’s, in the era of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers, Chicano activists raised awareness of the holiday. They identified with the victory of indigenous Mexicans over the French invaders in their modern struggle to overcome discrimination and economic exploitation in California.
More recently, on college campuses in the Bay Area, organizers of Cinco de Mayo events emphasize the pan-Latino aspect of the celebration and its symbolism of the power of “strength in numbers” to overcome adversity.
Some of the largest Cinco de Mayo festivals are held in America is cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. Los Angeles’ Fiesta Broadway has been billed as the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in the world, where more than half a million people have attended.
Regardless of your reasons for celebrating, now you know more about the important history of Cinco de Mayo.
Feliz Cinco de Mayo, y que viva la fiesta! But also remember the popular Cinco de Mayo saying, “In the face of adversity, we must never give up!”