Holidays Explained: Cinco de Mayo

Music. Food. Dancing. Heritage. You know about how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo (if not, read here), but do you know why May 5 is a significant date in not only Mexican history, but United States history and perhaps even the history of the world?

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It’s not Mexico’s Independence Day (that’s September 16). It’s not a federal holiday in Mexico. In fact, the holiday is celebrated more by Mexican-Americans than in Mexico itself (but it is celebrated in one Mexican region), and the first Cinco de Mayo celebration is believed to have been held in California in the mid-1860s.

cinco5“It’s very similar to how Irish-Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day,” Jody Agius Vallejo, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, told the Associated Press. “One way they can honor their ethnicity is to celebrate this day, even when most don’t know why.”

And that reason why is a battle that almost seems like a story straight from Hollywood (particularly 300, based on the Battle of Thermopylae). But some background first:

It all started in the 1860s. France was considered to have one of the premier military outfits in the world at the time, and Napoleon III was looking to expand the French empire and collect debts from Mexico. So he sent his troops toward Mexico City to overthrow the democratically elected leader, President Benito Juárez (they didn’t make it). Why this push by the French? Because Abraham Lincoln was busy fighting the Confederacy in the Civil War, and France had plans to install a Mexican monarchy and team up with the South in the Civil War.

The Mexican army didn’t stand much of a chance against the well-organized and well-funded French army, and the Mexicans were vastly outnumbered heading into the  Battle of Puebla in 1862. The specific numbers vary, but most historians agree that the French army had anywhere from 2,000-4,000 more troops than the Mexican forces at Puebla. cinco4

But David (Mexico) beat Goliath (France) on May 5, 1862, at Puebla, and though the victory was followed with losses in subsequent battles, Puebla was a significant symbolic victory for the newly formed Mexican government and President Juárez. The win also galvanized Latinos who had moved north to California during the gold rush. But some historians argue one of the most important effects of the Mexican victory was the impact it had on America’s Civil War.

President Lincoln appeared to stay neutral in the war between France and Mexico, hoping to avoid the French teaming up with the South in the Civil War, and his gamble paid off. The loss prevented France from helping supply the Confederacy for a year, allowing the Union to bulk up their army for the fight against the South. And roughly 14 months after the Battle of Puebla, the North smashed the South at the Battle of Gettysburg, which eventually led to the Union’s victory in the Civil War.cinco7.jpgWith an estimated 34 million (and growing) Americans either from Mexico or with Mexican descent, it’s no wonder the holiday has become so popular, with many cities, from Los Angeles to Minneapolis to New York, holding huge cultural celebrations.

So, without the crucial Mexican victory at Puebla, the U.S. might not look entirely different, and Mexican-Americans and all people across the U.S. wouldn’t have a reason to enjoy parades, festivals, celebrate Mexican heritage, and enjoy the wonderful “melting pot” of America on Cinco de Mayo!

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