Cinco de Mayo, meaning “Fifth of May” in Spanish is celebrated as a national holiday in Mexico. It is also celebrated as a holiday in regions of the United States that have large Mexican-American populations, particularly Texas, Southern California, and portions of the Southwest. Cinco de Mayo memorializes the legendary defeat of the French forces by the Mexican Army on 5 May 1862, in the Battle of Puebla.
The nineteenth century was a volatile period in Mexico’s history. Although Mexico had finally broken free from Spain earlier in the nineteenth century, the price for its independence was high in terms of men and money. Compounding its difficulties, the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848 and the Mexican Civil War of 1858 had wreaked havoc with its economy. Mexico was deeply in debt.
Eager to expand its territory, France seized this opportunity to move into the weakened Mexico. France would instate the European archduke Maximilian as emperor of Mexico, thereby securing its presence there. French military forces were sent to pave the way for Maximilian’s assumption of the throne.
The Mexican Army, helmed by the young general Ignacio Zaragoza, steeled itself to challenge the French troops at Puebla. On Cinco de Mayo, 1862, the two forces confronted each other. Greatly outnumbered and poorly equipped, the Mexican Army was pitted against the superior and well-armed French troops. In spite of their significant disadvantage, the Mexican militia battled ferociously. After only a few hours of pitched fighting, the Mexicans succeeded in overpowering the French. The battle was over, the victorious Mexican Army had succeeded against all odds in repelling the invasion.
Ultimately, the French would not give up so easily. They returned a year later to fight again, and this time, the French triumphed over the Mexicans. The Mexican people observed the first anniversary of Cinco de Mayo while occupied by the French. French rule would finally come to an end in 1867.
Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of bravery, pride, unity, and the triumph of the underdog. These qualities transcend historical and cultural boundaries. The significance behind Cinco de Mayo can be appreciated by people of all cultures.
In Mexico, the most enthusiastic observations of Cinco de Mayo take place in the state of Puebla. Both in Mexico and in Mexican-American enclaves in the United States, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with food, music, parades, and dancing. Many communities hold cultural displays such as mariachi concerts and presentations of ballet folklórico.
Cinco de Mayo is often confused with Mexico’s Independence Day. This is a separate holiday, which takes place on September 16. This day commemorates Mexico’s declaration of independence from Spain. Cinco de Mayo is more than an acknowledgment of political independence—it is a celebration of the independence of the human spirit.