Cinco de Mayo history dates back to 1862 in Puebla, Mexico. Although it is often mistakenly referred to as Mexico’s independence day, which is actually on September 16, it actually commemorates Mexico’s victory at Puebla over the occupying French army. This now-famous city is located about 100 miles outside of Mexico City and was the site of the Battle of Puebla that is now reenacted in numerous celebrations and is one of the more popular Cinco de Mayo customs.
The Battle of Puebla occurred during a very chaotic time in Mexican history. In 1821, Mexico had gained its independence from Spain but had experienced a slew of hardships in the years following. Political instability and economic troubles defined the times, and there were various internal political battles, in addition to the Mexican-American War of the 1840s and the Mexican Civil War in 1858, all which took a toll on the national economy.
Due to these hardships, Mexico was forced to borrow money from foreign nations in order to survive. The most hefty debts were owed to Spain, Great Britain, and France, none of whom were happy about the slow repayment of the borrowed money. Although Mexico was an independent nation, France had empire expansion in mind and decided to use the debt issue to make military moves within the country.
The French invaded Mexico on the gulf coast and began to march toward Mexico City. The Mexicans were on their own, as the United States was occupied with its own Civil War and other nations turned their back on the struggling nation due to its economic troubles. These facts about Cinco de Mayo are not widely known and make the holiday’s history even more affecting and interesting. As the French started their trek toward the capital of Mexico, they ran into resistance at Puebla. Although the two small forts of Loreto and Guadalupe were outfitted with only about 4,000 men, they defeated the well-trained and significantly larger French army, which had roughly 8,000 soldiers and had not lost a battle in nearly 50 years.
Ultimately, the Battle of Puebla did not have a significant strategic effect, it was a great boost to morale, despite the fact that the French were eventually victorious in capturing Mexico City and establishing rule. The Cinco de Mayo customs are based upon this unlikely victory and thus are the source of a great deal of national pride. The victory helped to develop a national sense of unity and served as a memory for the Mexicans and helped them move forward to eventually expel the French from their country.
These facts about Cinco de Mayo are not widely known as the holiday is really based in Puebla and is generally not celebrated throughout Mexico. There are some limited celebrations around the country, but the best and most involved festivities, reenactments, and Cinco de Mayo customs take place in Puebla. In addition, the celebration has spread to the United States, especially in cities and areas where there is large Mexican population and along the American-Mexican border.
Image: Paul Lowry (flickr)