Many Americans may not realize that Cinco de Mayo is more widely and enthusiastically celebrated in the United States than in Mexico. Cynics may say this is due to commercial hype around the holiday by tequila companies and tortilla-chip vendors, but celebrating the fifth day of May goes back to the time of the American Civil War.
In 1862, French General Charles Latrille Laurencez, fortified by troops from Queen Isabella II of Spain and Queen Victoria of Great Britain, landed in Veracruz, Mexico, under orders of Napoleon III to invade Mexico and make it a French territory. Unwilling to succumb to another colonial invasion, Mexico decided to fight back.
On May 5, 1862, Mexican Commanding General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín and his underarmed militia intercepted the French troops en route to Mexico City. Although the French outnumbered them two to one, the Mexican fighters succeeded in halting the French from moving forward, making Puebla their final stop.
What does this have to do with the United States?
After the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the subsequent war between the respective nations, morale was low in Mexico—and for the former Mexicans who were now soldiers in the American Confederate Army. They were battle-fatigued, having just fought in the Mexican-American War, and were now embroiled in the American Civil War. When news of the underdog defeat of the French troops at Battle of Puebla reached them, it sparked a swell of national pride. Although the battle didn’t stop the French from eventually taking over Mexico City, the event became representative of Mexican resistance against French imperialism.
Victory at the Battle of Puebla represented a great moral victory for the Mexican government,
symbolizing the country’s ability to defend its sovereignty against threat by a powerful foreign nation.
Americans of Mexican heritage began celebrating the first Cinco de Mayo in California in 1863. There were street parades, feasts, and even bullfights. In 2012, the city of Puebla—one of the only Mexican cities that celebrates the day—threw the party of a lifetime with larger-than-life stage performances, parades with locals dressed as the men who fought and defeated the French, and thousands of revelers lining the streets.
Want to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in Mexico?
Known as the city of tiles, Puebla is an excellent destination for celebrating Cinco de Mayo in Mexico, although it’s a lovely place to visit year-round. Due to its long colonial history and spectacular architecture, the city of Puebla was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
If you happen to be in, or are headed to Puebla, check out these events. (En español.)
Want to learn more about this very American holiday?
El Cinco de Mayo, And American Tradition, by author
Thinking about learning Spanish?
Who fought in the Battle of Puebla: