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Cinco de Mayo: History & Background on the 5th of May Mexican Holiday


What is Cinco de Mayo? In this post, we look at the festive Mexican holiday “5th of May,” the celebration, traditions, colors, foods, background, and more.

I’ve always liked Cinco de Mayo.

I love the Mexican food, cerveza specials, and the colorful decorations adorning many cities with a heavy representation of Mexican expats.

Oh, and the date “5/5” works around the world, even for a backward American like me.

But, what is Cinco de Mayo? What is the history behind this Mexican holiday, and how is it celebrated?

Let’s find out!

What is Cinco de Mayo?

Cinco de Mayo, literally “five of May,” is an annual Mexican holiday remembering the Franco-Mexican War and celebrating the Mexican army’s victory in the Battle of Puebla over the French in 1862.

Many foreigners often conflate or confuse this holiday with Mexican Independence Day, but it is not Día de la Independencia, which happens at the other end of summer, on 16 September.

Mexico Women Traditional Dancing Cinco de Mayo Dresses
Mexican women dancing in their traditional, colorful dresses is a common custom for Cinco de Mayo. Taken by S. Rae via unsplash.com. [Public Domain].

Cinco de Mayo History

Cinco de Mayo in Mexico, specifically around the city of Puebla, is also known as El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (the Day of the Battle of Puebla), and this is as accurate a name as you can get.

So, the Mexican War of Reform (1858–1860) had just ravaged the country’s economy, and the new president, Benito Juárez, in 1861 was forced to default on loan payments to three European world powers: France, Spain, and Britain (UK). These three formed the Tripartite Alliance aimed at storming Mexico.

Europe wasn’t as forgiving and progressive as it is known to be today, so all three empires sent a navy each to break some legs, essentially. However, President Juárez was able to work out a deal with Spain and Britain, so those powers backed off.

France, on the other hand, would not back down, which set up what’s known in the history books as the “Second French Intervention in Mexico” (the first one being known as the “Pastry War” of the late 1830s).

An expeditionary force, led by French General Charles de Lorencez, decided to attack the town of Puebla. On May 5, 1862, his forces were soundly defeated by Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza.

Like the 1944 Warsaw Uprising in Poland against the occupying Nazis, the Mexicans would lose later on, in the Second Battle of Puebla a year later. However, this first win really inspired Mexicans and others, an encouraging symbolic victory, as no one had thought the French even had a single weakness.

Puebla City Mexico
Puebla City, Mexico, today. Taken by S. Gabriel via unsplash.com. [Public Domain].

How is Cinco de Mayo Celebrated?

Today, believe it or not, the fifth of May Mexican holiday is celebrated more elaborately in the United States than in Mexico.

Mexicans do recognize and celebrate Cinco de Mayo, especially around the Puebla area, but it is not as important as other holidays. Everything, for the most part, remains open and in business.

In the United States, however, Mexicans use it to celebrate all of Mexican culture and history, with lavish parties, elaborate decorations, dancing in colorful dresses, and traditional Mexican food and drinks.

I’m only speculating here, but it seems appropriate for Mexican-Americans to put more weight on this holiday than their families back in their ancestral Mexico. Mexicans living in the US always draw the short straw, and like their defeat of the French, Cinco de Mayo feels a fitting reminder that Mexicans are not to be underestimated or dismissed—not then, and not now.

Well, that’s it on the Cinco de Mayo background, history, and holiday celebrations. Got any questions or comments on the May 5th holiday? Let’s chat in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

For more like this, check out our holidays and celebrations page. Also, another pertinent article to read is our writeup on the differences between Spanish and Latin American.

Christian Eilers
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Christian Eilers
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