The History of Cinco de Mayo

It’s the fifth of May, which for those of Mexican heritage means it’s the day to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

Cinco de Mayo is the remembrance of the victory of the Mexican Army over the French at the Battle of Puebla.  It was one of the few victories that the Mexican people had over the occupying French Army.  Mostly it was a moral victory, but still holds a solid place in the celebration of Mexico’s struggle (and ultimate victory) for independence.

The French occupation of Mexico started in the aftermath of the Mexican-American war that lasted from 1846 – 1848.  Mexico had very little money to pay its debts and declared that it would pay nothing for two years, until it could get its own finances back in order. France disagreed with the proposal and backed it up with armed forces.

history of cinco de mayo

In 1862, on the 5th of May, the well-equipped French army (along with Mexican traitors) totaled around 8000 and began its advance on the Mexican people.  The Mexicans were undermanned and ill-equipped to fight the battle.

Union forces came to the aid of the Mexican people, because of the mutual disdain for the French.  General Phil Sheridan helped to supply the Mexicans with weapons and ammunition.  American soldiers were released from duty in order to join the Mexicans in battle against the advancing French army (some experts believe that because of the United States’ assistance during the Battle of Puebla against the French, many Mexicans rushed to support the United States after Pearl Harbor).

The United States and Mexico came together to defeat an enemy that outmanned them both. By working together, the two countries were able to eventually secure their own freedoms. The French were kept out of the United States and eventually the Mexican people ran them out as well and celebrated their own independence day.

The holiday of Cinco de Mayo in America goes back to the 1860s.  It was a celebration of the cooperation between the United States and Mexico to defeat the French.  In Mexico, the celebration of Cinco de Mayo is mostly regional – with the holiday being commemorated in the state of Puebla.

For the most part, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with festivals and fairs around the United States.  There are parades, mariachi music, Mexican folk dancing and many more activities to celebrate the Mexican heritage in America.

Today the celebration of Cinco de Mayo has lost almost all of its historical (and unification) roots.  Few people from any heritage understand the cooperation that formed the holiday. Like many cultural celebrations (St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest and the Chinese New Year) it has been hijacked by commercial enterprises.  It’s a shame that a celebration of such significance for the two countries now seems to be nothing more than a date on the calender.


Thanks to Paul Stein on Flickr for use of the image

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