A few years ago, on a vacation to a Mexican resort town, I took my kids for an afternoon adventure of horseback riding and swimming beneath a beautiful waterfall. During the bus ride from the hotel to the Mexican dude ranch, the entertaining host engaged the “Americanos” with banter.He asked the group, “What is Cinco de Mayo?” A few confident hands sprung up and he called on one.
A young lady with glasses and full of confidence said, “It’s Mexican Independence Day.”
This was the answer our host was looking for, not just because it was wrong, but because it was his segue into the entertainment for the next half hour. Without a pause for a breath he launched into a lecture about the confusion Americans have over what exactly Cinco de Mayo is and how we always get it wrong.
Most Americans know that Cinco de Mayo translated means “the fifth of May” and that it is a Mexican holiday we celebrate along with our Mexican brothers. Most Americans think it is Mexican Independence Day, similar to American’s Fourth of July. It isn’t. But what is it really?
Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in Veracruz during the Franco-Mexican War in 1862. Two thousand Mexican troops (some sources cite 4,500 troops) defeated a 6,000 strong French army attempting to besiege the town during a four-hour battle. The defensive win wasn’t necessarily strategic, but symbolically it represented a boost to the resistance and the Mexican defiance of colonialism. Although losing the battle, the French rallied and within a year had defeated the Mexican army installing Emperor Maximilian I as ruler of Mexico.
It took six years from the date of the Battle of Puebla, with the aid of the United States who had finally finished fighting among itself during it’s own Civil War, to finally kick the French out of Mexico. Since the Franco-Mexican War, no other European power has invaded the Americas, unless you count the British and Argentinian conflict, which was really a retaking of territory and not an invasion.
The result of this victory over France has been theorized to have an impact on future political developments in North America. Several prominent historians believe that France would have come to the aid of the Southern Confederate Army in the U.S. Civil War had they won at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. This could have changed this history of the United States in a dramatic way.
While celebrated locally in the Mexican state of Puebla, multiple sources cite that this holiday isn’t necessarily a major one inside of Mexico. In Mexico, various sources cite that while children typically don’t have school on May 5, it is not a recognized federal holiday and most of the rest of Mexico remains open for business on May 5.
Mexican-American populations in America, however, grabbed ahold of the holiday and used it as an opportunity to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage. Mexicans living in California in the 1860s are credited with being the first in the United States to celebrate the holiday. From the 1940s through the 1960s, Chicano activists used the holiday for it’s symbolic victory of indigenous Mexicans over European invaders, and to celebrate Mexican culture. During this time, Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United Stets expanded across the country. In 2005, the U.S. Congress issued a resolution that called for the President to issue a proclamation that would observe Cinco de Mayo.
Mexico’s Independence Day, on the other hand, is on September 16. This day celebrates the anniversary of the call to arms by the revolutionary priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla for Mexican citizens to rise up against the Spanish colonial government in 1810.
Today, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with parades, parties, Mexican folk dancing and mariachi music across the United States where Mexican-American communities are present. Across the globe, Cinco de Mayo has become a day to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage in such diverse countries as Canada, the Cayman Islands, Australia and England. And, as how St. Patricks Day is celebrated by non-Irish Americans and used as an excuse to ‘party’ a little bit, Cinco de Mayo has been adopted by non-Mexican Americans in much the same way. Margaritas anyone?