The Real History of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is often mistaken for Mexican Independence Day, which is actually celebrated on September 16. However, the real history of Cinco de Mayo, Spanish for Fifth of May, is a popular and festive celebration held on May 5 that commemorates the Mexican Army’s victory over the French military at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 led by General Zaragoza (shown below). In the U.S. Cinco de Mayo has grown to be quite synonymous with celebrating Mexican-American culture and heritage, whereas in Mexico, the commemoration of the battle is very ceremonial.

history of cinco de mayo

History of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo dates back to when the French occupied Mexico after the Mexican–American War of 1846.

The Reform War was a civil war between the Liberals and the Conservatives. Unfortunately, these wars led to the Mexican Treasury nearly going bankrupt. But on July 17, 1861, Mexican President Benito Juárez took a stand and created a moratorium that all foreign debt payments be suspended for the next two years. As a result, France, Britain, and Spain reacted by deploying naval forces to Veracruz to demand the debts be paid back. Spain and Britain then made a deal with Mexico and withdrew their troops, while France led by Napoleon III establish a Latin empire in Mexico that would favor French interests and established what was known to be the Second Mexican Empire. The French invaded and faced heavy resistance from the Mexicans close to Puebla, at the Mexican forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. So on May 5, 1862, the Mexican forces won the battle over the French. This was a victorious battle for Mexico and it significantly boosted the moral of the Mexican people.

Time magazine described it stating, “The Puebla victory came to symbolize unity and pride for what seemed like a Mexican David defeating a French Goliath.” 

What’s most important about this victory at Puebla relative to the celebration of Cinco de Mayo is that it built a very strong sense of unity and patriotism for the country and its people.

Sources: Featured photo by Fansided of Mexican folk dancers perform for Cinco de Mayo celebrations at San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Wikipedia Commons.