Cinco de Mayo: A Celebration Of Mexican Heritage

May 5, 2019 By Deepa Gopal
Deepa Gopal's picture

Time to bring out those sombreros and piñatas!

Cinco de Mayo, which literally means the "Fifth of May" is an unofficial holiday in the United States and parts of Mexico.

But did you know that Cinco de Mayo has very little to do with Mexico, and is a bigger affair in the United States? In fact, the first Cinco de Mayo celebrations were held in California and created by the state's Latinos in 1862!

The real story of Cinco de Mayo weaves together the stories of two wars -- the American Civil War, and the French attack on Mexico. Let's find out its fascinating origin. 

Battle of Puebla

Mexico, since its independence from Spain in 1821, had been struggling financially. The heavy cost of the war with the United States had plunged Mexico into debt and it had lost more than half of its territory (in Texas, California, and New Mexico) to the US.

Mexico had borrowed heavily from England, France, and Spain and found itself unable to repay the debt. President Benito Juarez had ordered all debt payments be stopped for two years. While this angered the lenders, France's Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) decided to use the opportunity to invade Mexico in 1861. French warships landed at the Mexican port of Veracruz, hoping for a smooth victory.

However, in a surprising turn of events, the well-equipped army of 8,000 French soldiers was defeated by an ill-equipped Mexican army half that size on May 5. The Mexicans were led by General Ignacio Zaragoza. The battle of Puebla, as it came to be known, didn't end the war. Napoleon sent reinforcements, and this time the French captured Mexico City.

The U.S Civil War 

Now it turns out Napolean was also sympathetic to the Confederates who were demanding a separate state in the southern United States.

The Union soldiers, loyal to the government, were suffering defeat at the hands of the Confederates. However, by the time the French sent reinforcements after their defeat in Puebla, the Union soldiers had re-grouped and had the upper hand in the Civil War. Historians believe that had the French army taken root in Mexico earlier, the fate of the Civil war might have been different. In 1868, Mexico took back its territory from France. 

General Zaragoza's victory at Puebla in on May 5, 1862, was a David-vs-Goliath moment with a ragtag army of Mexican soldiers defeating a well-equipped French army. When news of the victory spread to North America, Latinos in California rejoiced. Speeches, parades, dances, and banquets marked the occasion, and continue to this day as a symbolic goodwill gesture between the two nations.

Sources: History, Britannica