The Fascinating History Behind Cinco de Mayo

Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day—which is celebrated September 16—and is not even an official or major holiday there.

It actually originates in the United States—most likely among Mexicans communities in 1860s California—and is more popular here than anywhere else in the world. Not unlike St. Patrick’s Day—which also took off mostly due to Irish immigrants in America—Cinco de Mayo has become both an opportunity to drink and party, and a testament to the widespread appeal of Mexican cuisine, music, art, and culture generally.

In fact, there are now major celebrations in places as distinct as Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, Nigeria, and South Africa. As a reflection of the holiday’s U.S. roots, many foreign celebrations often invoke American or Mexican American culture specifically.

Nevertheless, Cinco de Mayo does have a major connection to Mexico itself, as the anniversary of the country’s shocking defeat of invading French forces in the Battle of Puebla in 1862.

Mexico had just emerged from a three-year civil war known as the Reform War, which was triggered in part by the passage of one of the world’s most progressive constitutions; it had enshrined freedoms of speech, conscience, the press, and assembly, and even the right to bear arms. It also reaffirmed the abolition of slavery—which Mexico was one of the first countries to ban, back in 1824—and of debtor prison, cruel and unusual punishment, and the death penalty.

Mural depicting the Franco-Mexican War (source unknown)

The pro-constitution faction, known as the “Liberals”, ultimately won against the “Conservatives”, who had opposed the subsequent weakening of the church, army, and landed elite. Led by Beninto Juarez (pictured on the right)—a poor orphan who was Mexico’s first indigenous leader—a battered Mexico had become heavily indebted to foreign nations namely France, Spain, and Great Britain. After declaring a pause on loan payments for two years, the European powers sent naval forces to pressure reimbursement; while Juarez was able to reach a settlement with the British and Spanish, France used the opportunity to take over the country and declare a new Mexican Empire under its control.

The entire enterprise was really designed to fulfill the imperial ambitions of French Emperor Napoleon III, the nephew and heir of Napoleon Bonaparte, who envisioned creating a massive “Latin” empire across the Western Hemisphere. The defeated Conservatives, many of whom were monarchists and nobility, collaborated for their own benefit, giving the French another edge. To top it all off, France was one of the preeminent powers of the time—and at one point had the backing of the U.K., Austria, and Spain—so the fact that Mexico was able to mount such a resounding victory became a cause for celebration.

Mexican forces at Pueblo, as elsewhere, were under-equipped and outnumbered, in this case by two to one. But under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín—who resigned as Mexico’s secretary of war just to lead the army—they surprised the world with their superior tactics, inflicting the first major defeat of a French army in fifty years.

As explained in the Washington Post, the Mexicans made the most of their homefield advantage in an era where armies were just figuring out how to use guns en masse?:

A young Mexican general, Ignacio Zaragoza, placed a small, tough force at Puebla and scoured the countryside for volunteers to bolster the defense. A long trench was added to the city’s existing fortifications. Some 4,500 men occupied this position on May 5, when 6,000 French troops under Major General Charles de Lorencez came up the valley.

The overconfident French nobleman ordered an immediate attack. Zaragoza’s riflemen found easy targets as de Lorencez’s soldiers charged the trenches. Those Frenchmen who survived the climb met savage hand-to-hand fighting at the Mexican trenches.

A second charge also failed. As Union and Confederate generals would soon learn on battlefields from Corinth, Miss., to Gettysburg, a ferocious foe in an entrenched position had a tremendous advantage. The bloody field filled with French bodies.

When a third charge also failed, Zaragoza unleashed his cavalry on both flanks of the retreating French. The battle became a rout, and de Lorencez fell back all the way to Veracruz, where he counted his losses (as many as 500 killed and wounded) and waited to be reinforced from back home.

Unfortunately for Mexico, it would be a short-lived, if still impressive, victor.y Zaragoza died of typhoid fever shortly after his victory, and the loss of such a brilliant young general helped pave the way for France to ultimately win the war and install an “emperor” beholden to their interests (and related to Napoleon III). But Mexican liberals and republicans, still led by Juarez, continued the fight against this imposed monarchy through guerilla warfare and resistance. They garnered enough popular support at home and abroad (including from the U.S.) to prevail against French forces and secure their independence in 1867.

Though they lost initial war, Mexicans had won the larger conflict, and remained proud that they were able to hold their own and eventually win their freedom. Hence the battle is still a point of pride for the small town of Pueblo—the only place that probably celebrates it as enthusiastically as Americans—and an ideal basis for a holiday celebrating Mexican culture.

But the U.S. connection does not end there; as some historians argue, the Mexican victory—which the embattled Americans had a vested interest in—may have changed the course of U.S. and world history:

The United States likely benefited more from the battle than did Mexico: the French were so occupied with Mexico that they were not able to significantly fund or assist the Confederacy during our own Civil War, despite the best of intentions. The Union, of course, was funded through a series of government taxes, including the Internal Revenue Act of 1862, the precursor to our modern tax system. Since the French were sympathetic to the Confederacy, had the French easily taken Puebla in 1862, freeing up military and other resources, the entire course of history might have been changed.

A similar take from the same WaPo article at the top:

Had a triumphant French army been raising the flag in Mexico City that summer, it might have made all the difference. The wavering Napoleon might have been emboldened to recognize the Confederacy, pulling the British along with him. Instead, the French army was licking its wounds, mangled by a smaller force of Mexican irregulars, and the emperor was momentarily chastened.  Though France managed to topple the Mexican government the following year, its brief reign there came too late to help the South. The North had regained its momentum, and Lincoln was on his way to saving the Union.

Of course, such “what-ifs” are, by definition, difficult to put much stock in. But these events, like Cinco de Mayo itself, speak to just how intertwined our nations, cultures, communities, and histories are. For all the tumult and conflict—the Mexican-American War and our annexation of half of Mexico; hostilities centered on the Southern Border and immigration; and now “cultural anxiety” about the large Mexican/Hispanic communities generally—the two societies, for better or worse, share a mutual love for one another that transcends these things.

“They didn’t jump the border—it jumped them” Source: The Economist

Mexico is America’s second largest trading partner after Canada—third if you count the EU as a country—while America is Mexico’s top trading partner. Mexico is one of the top destinations for American travelers, as well as retirees; more Americans live there than anywhere outside the country (about 1.5 million). For its part, America has the largest Mexican community outside Mexico, at nearly 50 million; they make up over 11% of all Americans, more than half of all Latins, and a quarter of all foreign-born people. But the vast majority (71%) were born in the U.S., and most live in the American Southwest—which was formerly Mexican territory.

And as trite as it may seem, the mainstream appeal of Cinco de Mayo—and of Mexican culture generally—as well as the fact that most of the world seems to view it as a Mexican-American fusion, is just another example of the indelible connections between our nations.