What Cinco de Mayo Really Celebrates

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Many people mistakenly believe that Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day. That simply isn't true; Cinco de Mayo celebrates an event that happened in the city of Puebla more than 50 years after Mexico won independence from Spain — and Spain doesn't even figure into Cinco de Mayo.

The history of Cinco de Mayo

In 1861, Mexican President Benito Juárez stopped making interest payments to Mexico's creditors. Although England worked diplomatically with Mexico to work out their problems, France's Emperor Napoleon III decided to invade Mexico and force repayment.

This invasion was a clear violation of United States' Monroe Doctrine — which stated that any attempts by European nations to colonize or interfere with states in the Americas would be viewed as acts of aggression — but by this time, the United States had its hands full with its own Civil War. So, for the time being, Mexico was on its own.

France's first invasions proved successful, and its forces moved steadily toward Mexico's capital, Mexico City, defeating any resistance that stood in their way. That is, until early May 1862, when they reached the city of Puebla.

Even though the French armies outnumbered the Mexican armies at Puebla 2-to-1, the Mexican forces, under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, managed to defeat the French army on May 5. It is this victory over the French that is celebrated on Cinco de Mayo.

The French defeat at Puebla slowed but did not halt France's progress toward Mexico City, however. In 1864, with the support of Mexico's Roman Catholic clergy and conservative upper class, France overtook Mexico City, setting Emperor Maximilian I on the throne.

After the U.S. Civil War ended, the United States began pressuring France to pull out of Mexico. Eventually, this pressure, along with continuous resistance from the citizens of Mexico, forced France to withdraw. By the middle of May 1867, Maximilian I had been executed and Benito Juárez was once again presiding over his state of Mexico.

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo

Outside of Puebla, Cinco de Mayo isn't much celebrated in Mexico. In the United States and elsewhere, though, the holiday is used to celebrate Mexican pride and heritage. In many cities with large Mexican populations, you can expect to find parades, cultural exhibits, and fairs. And, of course, Cinco de Mayo is used as an excuse to imbibe that spirit born in the heart of Mexico: tequila.

U.S. celebrations of Cinco de Mayo may have begun shortly after the original battle of Puebla, as Californians used Cinco de Mayo as a rallying call to show their support of Mexican resistance to French rule.

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