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The Real Cinco de Mayo

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

It is that time of the year that we start seeing brightly colored sombrero and cactus decorations. Restaurants are advertising their Cinco de Mayo drink specials, regardless of whether or not they’re a Mexican restaurant. Basically, it’s that time of the year that people have an excuse to drink excessively, because, you know, celebrating cultures, right? Wrong.

Let me start off by saying, contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is NOT Mexican Independence Day. Ok, now that we got that out of the way, let’s discuss what Cinco de Mayo actually is. Cinco de Mayo, literally translated in English to the 5th of May, commemorates the Mexican army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Mexico gained its independence from Spain on 27 September 1821, a full 41 years before the Battle of Puebla.

France and Feelings of Grandeur

So, what was France doing in Mexico? I’m glad you asked. Unfortunately, the new fledgling country of Mexico was in financial tatters. Benito Juárez, the President of Mexico at the time, put a stop to the debt payments to foreign countries. Britain, Spain, and France didn’t take too kindly to that and decided to send naval forces to Mexico in an effort to force Mexico to give them their money. Upon arrival, Spain and Britain realized that France had intended to attack and occupy Mexico. They were not about that life, so they negotiated with Mexico and withdrew their forces.

France, under the rule of Napoleon III, was feeling themselves and decided to attempt to create a new empire in Mexico. It’s worth mentioning that the reign of Napoleon III was spent in coups, in exile, or in attempts to spread France’s influence around the world. So, this invasion was just another attempt by the French to grasp at their fading world influence.

Although Mexico had gained its independence from Spain 41 years prior, there were constant wars and revolutions amongst the people. Not only that, but 14 years prior Mexico had fought the United States in the Mexican-American war, losing an enormous chunk of their territory. Needless to say, Mexico was not in a good position to fight another war, and France knew that.

France Invades!

In 1861, a large, and well-armed French force landed in Veracruz and pushed the Mexican forces into retreat. President Juarez rallied as many men as he could and sent them to Puebla to meet the advancing French forces. On May 5, 1862, the vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped Mexican forces were able to fortify the town and repel the advancing French. The battle lasted less than a full day, but the French retreated after losing close to 500 soldiers.

Unfortunately, the French would go on to capture most of Mexico, including its major cities. Although France had achieved its objective, it wouldn’t last long. The US government provided aid to Mexico and made it clear that it would not allow France to have a presence on the continent. Coupled with other French battles in Europe, constant guerilla warfare within Mexico, and US pressure, France finally left Mexico in 1867.

But why tho?

So, why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the US? There are differing opinions about how the celebrations became such a big thing in the United States. In 1863, Mexican miners in California celebrated the news of the battle with songs and fireworks. Since then, celebrations have occurred annually in California, mainly within Mexican-American communities. In the 1960’s, the Chicano movement pushed the celebrations into the broader spotlight. Chicano activists identified with the victory of the outnumbered Mexican forces against the European colonizers. However, in the 1980's, beer companies capitalized on the celebratory nature of the day and it has become what we know it to be today.

So, by all means, on Cinco de Mayo, enjoy the beauty that the Mexican culture has to offer, but remember what this day actually is. It is NOT Mexican Independence Day, but it IS a day that a very outnumbered Mexican force defeated a much larger enemy. So, yes, it is definitely a day for celebration!

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