The Origins of Cinco de Mayo

I hope everyone had a happy and safe Cinco de Mayo. 

Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day — that’s September 16, and it’s the country’s most important national holiday. Rather, it’s a commemoration of Mexico’s unlikely and surprising defeat of invading French forces in the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín.

France had invaded and occupied Mexico partly in response to the latter’s refusal to pay interest on its foreign debt, but largely to fulfill the imperial ambitions of French Emperor Napoleon III (the nephew and heir of Napoleon Bonaparte). France was one of the preeminent powers of the time – and at one point had the backing of the United Kingdom, Austria, and Spain – so the fact that Mexico was able to mount such a resounding victory became a cause for celebration. Mexican forces had been under-equipped and numbered only half of their French opponents (about 4,000 versus 8,000).

In any case, the French ultimately won the war and occupied Mexico until around 1867, when Maximilian I – who had been installed by the French as Emperor of the Second Mexican Empire – was overthrown and executed by Mexican revolutionaries. So despite losing the larger battle, Mexicans remained proud that they were able to hold their own and eventually win their freedom.

Interestingly, Cinco de Mayo is not a big holiday in Mexico except in the Puebla region where the battle was fought. In fact, it is far more popular in the United States, where it originated among Mexican-American communities in the 1860s, particularly in California. It eventually expanded across the country as a celebration of Mexican heritage and culture — and an opportunity to drink and party — not unlike the way St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated.

Cinco de Mayo has also caught on globally, with celebrations occurring in Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, and other countries. As a reflection of the holiday’s largely American roots, most foreign celebrations often invoke American culture and/or other Latin American heritages.

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