History of Cinco de Mayo

Why do we celebrate the 5th of May every year?  One common misperception is that the day represents the Mexican Independence Day.  This is not true.  Mexico had declared its independence on September 15, 1810.  The day actually commemorates the famous Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, some 50 years later when 4,000 Mexican soldiers defeated 8,000 French soldiers at Puebla, Mexico.  The victory symbolized Mexico’s willingness to vigorously defend themselves from imperialistic foreign nations who for centuries were looking to take over much of the Western world.

The events leading up to Cinco de Mayo is rooted in the French occupation of Mexico during the mid-1800’s after the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848.  During the 1850’s, Mexico faced turbulent times fighting not only the Americans but internally in a civil war.  This left the country faced with paying foreign debts that it could no longer afford.  The Mexican President at the time, Benito Juarez, declared a two-year moratorium on the payment of its foreign debts because of the country’s dire financial condition.  Upon this news, the French, Spanish, and English all landed troops in Mexico to collect their debts.  The Spanish and English withdrew shortly after, after most likely agreeing to some kind of deal with Mexico.

Unlike Spain and England, France refused to leave.  Their intentions were to create an empire in Mexico under Emperor Napoleon III who also happened to despise the United States and also feared that one day it could become a dominant global power.  He appointed a Hapsburg prince, Maximilian, to rule the new Mexican empire.  Napoleon then invaded Mexico with the French Army that was much better trained and equipped.  Their confidence was reinforced by the fact that the United States was embroiled in their own civil war at the time and would not be a threat at the time.  The goal of the French was to capture Mexico City which they felt would quickly force Mexico to surrender.

The Mexican forces were led by General Zaragosa who took defensive position around the Puebla, a city 100 miles east of Mexico City.  During the battle, the French were reckless and sloppy and initially suffered heavy casualties and expended a great deal of their ammunition.  The decisive event in the battle occurred when Brigadier General Porifio Diaz repelled an attack by the French Army along Zaragosa’s right flank and then chased after the defeated French.  The victory was a glorious moment in Mexican history and has been immortalized in the annual celebration of Cinco de Mayo as the day Mexico defeated the powerful French Army with less than half the amount of soldiers as France.

Despite the victory, France won the war and continued to rule for several years.  Even during this period, Mexicans began celebrating on the 5th of May.  Over the years, the day has become very commercialized and seen as a time for fun and dance.  Cinco de Mayo is celebrated on a much larger scale in the United States than it is in Mexico, but to Mexicans and Mexican Americans, the day signifies a time to party and celebrate freedom and liberty.

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