Many stories surround Cinco de Mayo, which means “Fifth of May” in Spanish. This Mexican holiday commemorates a military victory won by that country’s army over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla, which took place on May 5, 1862.
That day, the poorly equipped Mexicans, outnumbered two to one by the invaders, met on the field of battle and decisively beat the superior French force. After the Mexican victory, Cinco de Mayo became a cause for celebration in Mexico and elsewhere, especially in the United States.
The Holiday’s GenesisRead More »
The French Empire under ruler Napoleon III had long wanted to establish a “Latin America” that France would control, thus rebuilding that nation’s influence in the Americas.
The Mexican civil war of 1858 to 1861, known as the Reform War, triggered the second French intervention. In July 1861, Mexican president Benito Juarez confronted a treasury made bankrupt by the country’s civil war. Juarez declared he would suspend all foreign debt repayments for two years.
Naval forces of Britain, Spain, and France soon arrived at Veracruz, Mexico, to demand continuing debt reimbursements.
Spain and Britain successfully negotiated with Mexico over the money the country owed the two nations and subsequently withdrew their forces.
France’s Napoleon III, however, considered Mexico’s debt moratorium to be the perfect excuse to invade and then create a “Mexican Empire” on the American continent that would be a vassal state of France.
Attack on Veracruz
By late 1861, the well-armed French fleet was ready to attack Veracruz, and it proceeded to send in a large ground force.
After making landfall, French troops moved through the city. They quickly drove Mexican President Juarez and his government out, sending them into retreat.
The Movement to Mexico City
With Veracruz in hand, the 8,000-strong French army eventually set out for Mexico City, advancing slowly and consolidating gains as they went. However, before the French could arrive at the capital city, they encountered heavy resistance from Mexican forces.
Those troops had taken up blocking positions near Puebla, fighting out of forts at Loreto and Guadalupe. The Mexicans’ stubborn resistance had halted the French army at least temporarily.
General Ignacio Zaragoza led the 4,000 poorly equipped Mexican soldiers that day. His troops would fight against a numerically, logistically, and technologically superior French army. But the Mexicans were standing fast on their home soil, and they were also intimately familiar with the ground on which they were fighting.
Battle of Puebla
Seeing his army’s advance stalled by the much smaller Mexican army, French general Charles de Lorencez decided to attack on May 5, 1862. He ordered his forces to move in from the north and focus their main effort on the two Mexican-held forts, especially Guadalupe.
The Mexican troops in the two forts successfully repelled three assault waves of French soldiers, who’d been backed in the first two by heavy artillery.
By the end of the third assault, the French were retreating, and the Mexican cavalry was in pursuit. Zaragoza’s force had stood tall and put the fleeing French army to rout. It was one of Mexico’s most significant military victories.
Cinco de Mayo’s Significance
The Mexican victory on May 5 of 1862 proved significant for Mexico both nationally and internationally. The French army hadn’t lost for nearly 50 years, for one.
Also, a ragtag force of 4,000 Mexican soldiers — led by a general of no formal military training — had rocked it back on its heels. Some historians also maintain that the Battle of Puebla on Cinco de Mayo, 1862, convinced France not to take the Confederate side in the United States civil war of 1860 to 1865.
More importantly for Mexico, the country’s victory on Cinco de Mayo also became the seed that led to the eventual failure of the second French intervention. After the collapse of the French determination to dominate Mexico, no country in the Americas ever again suffered invasion by a European military force.
Puebla, Mexico Today
Today, Puebla celebrates Cinco de Mayo with an impressive military parade that remembers the outnumbered Mexican troops’ brave stand against a superior French force.
Music, food, dancing, and other activities also highlight what General Zaragoza and his troops did on May 5, 1862.
The United States
Though Mexican Cinco de Mayo celebrations mainly occur in and around Puebla, it’s much more significant than that in the United States.
In America, this most enjoyable of festivals has taken root wherever elements of Mexican culture have added their unique flavor. Consider that the first known Cinco de Mayo celebrations took place in California in 1863 as a celebration of Mexican resistance to French rule, and they’ve spread ever since.
Cinco de Mayo in the US began coming into its own in the 1940s as California’s nascent Chicano Movement started gaining influence. By the 1950s and 1960s, the holiday was on a slow move outward from the Golden State.
By the 1980s, Cinco de Mayo had captured national attention, propelled there in part by various marketers attracted to the celebratory nature of the Mexican holiday.
Cinco de Mayo Today
Nowadays, Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla and a demonstration of pride in the unique Mexican-American culture found in parts of the United States.
You can find Cinco de Mayo is celebrated far and wide in the US, especially in cities and towns that host large Mexican-American populations. At the holiday celebrations and parades, you will find both Mexican and US flags proudly flown.
The American version also recognizes the deep ties between Mexico and the United States and the values shared by the two nations.
In recognition of the popularity and relevance of Cinco de Mayo in the US, Congress in 2005 also issued a resolution that encouraged Americans everywhere to observe Cinco de Mayo with celebrations and activities.
The holiday is an excellent excuse for a parade, after all, and many US school districts also hold commemorative events that emphasize the holiday’s historical significance.