Happy Cinco de Mayo! Ever wonder what Cinco de Mayo is and why we celebrate it in the US? Today is your lucky day, here is a history lesson…
Cinco de Mayo, or 5th of May in English, is celebrated in the United States and the Mexican states of Puebla and Veracruz where it is called El Día de la Batalla de Puebla or The Day of the Battle of Puebla. It is a celebration of Mexican pride and heritage, not Mexican Independence Day (that is in September). In fact, it is not even a national holiday in Mexico!
So what is Cinco de Mayo then? Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican Army’s success over the French on May 5, 1862. The Mexican Army rarely won a battle, so when they whipped French derrières it was a big deal. The Mexican Army also happened to be successful at another famous battle, the Battle of the Alamo in 1836—go figure. The Mexicans’ success at the Alamo emboldened the Texans in their fight for Independence from Mexico, so you can thank Mexico for Texas (not sure we should, though).
The Battle of the Puebla was not strategically important, but it did provide a much needed morale boost to the Mexican Army and people. The success was short lived, however. The French came back just a year later and kicked Mexican culo. Despite the battle’s lack of strategic importance, it was still significant. The Mexicans were out numbered by the French, almost two to one, and the French were much better equipped. Defeating them was surprising and quite a big deal. More importantly, no European force has invaded a country in the Americas since the Battle of the Puebla. Thank you, Mexico!
So, why is this holiday so much more celebrated in the US than in Mexico?
There are couple things to understand about the situation at the time. First, it is important to know that the American Civil War was going on during this time (1861-1865). The American West saw the Mexican success at the Battle of the Puebla as representing freedom and democracy in the early years of the Civil War. The American West, specifically former Mexican territories of California, Oregon and Nevada, sided with the non-slave states of the North during the Civil War. In the eyes of many Northern Americans, the South was seen as trying to destroy the greatest democracy ever created. For the North the Civil War was about preserving the Union and for the South the Civil War was about preserving slavery.
Second, the French were likely in Mexico because they wanted to help the South win the Civil War. Essentially, the United States was a proxy for the fighting between the French and the British (the British supported the North). The French saw a Northern win in the Civil War as against their interests. A united America was good for the British and not so good for the French. The irony in all of this is that European meddling in the US had been going on from the American Revolution right up to World War I. Yet, it was a strong and united America that helped save the Europeans not once, but twice (you’re welcome).
Many historians believe that if the French had won at the Battle of the Puebla, they would have used Mexico as a base to aid the South in the Civil War. Mexico’s success at the battle of the Puebla prevented Napoleon III from supplying the South which would have changed American history drastically. Thus, Cinco de Mayo is recognition for Mexico helping the United States maintain the Union. Today, Cinco de Mayo has moved beyond the West to become a celebration of pretty much anything Mexican or of Mexican heritage—from César Chávez to mariachi. It is really a recognition of the history and strong ties that the United States and Mexico share.
¡Viva México! ¡Muchos gracias y feliz cinco de mayo!