Cinco de Mayo marks an important day in Mexico, and it is the most recognized Mexican celebration worldwide, even when it’s not the most esteemed holiday in the country. Yet, few are aware of the origins of this festivity and the importance it has in Mexican culture, especially in Puebla. The holiday commemorates the ‘Batalla de Puebla’ – or the Battle of Puebla– when, against all odds, Mexican troops defeated the French on May 5 of 1862.
It all started when, in 1862, Benito Juárez’s government neglected to pay its foreign debts to certain European countries. England and Spain reached a diplomatic agreement with Mexico. On the other hand, France was not pleased. Napoleon III took advantage of the opportunity and decided to invade, sending an army of heavily armed troops at the command of General Laurencez to Mexico.
The French arrived first to the port of Veracruz, making their way to the center of the Republic. However, they never anticipated to encounter an organized resistance in Puebla. Such resistance under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza, though small and ill-equipped, managed to defend its position.
Ultimately, on the fifth of May, the Mexican troops defeated the French and forced them to retreat. This was a remarkable victory that delayed the French intervention for a year, and cemented Mexican patriotism.
This feat became a source of great pride for Mexican culture for two main reasons. First, it portrayed the unity of Mexicans, which strengthened the national identity. Second, it provided the opportunity to settle the fundamental principles of Mexican foreign policy, which are still present today in the country’s international relations.
The Battle’s Impact
To this day, both French and Mexican historians continue to analyze the events of that day. Even though Cinco de Mayo represents a glorious battle in Mexico, French history sees it as merely a failed assault. This, as Luis Gerardo Morales Moreno remarks in his lecture “Reflexiones historiográficas sobre la Batalla de 5 de Mayo” (Historiographical Reflections on the Battle of May 5), is evidence of how the Cinco de Mayo celebrations represent a myth of grandeur for the Mexican population, to strengthen the belief of the people’s power against stronger foreign enemies.
Regardless, the Battle of Puebla remains a source of Mexican pride in Puebla. This state places much more emphasis on the commemoration of this day than the rest of the country.
In Puebla, the Cinco de Mayo celebration is an official holiday, so most businesses and schools remain closed. Great parades are held in almost all cities of Puebla. The most famous one is the march along the Bulevar 5 de Mayo Street to the 22 Poniente Street. Thousands attend this event, to watch the floats and people that parade among music and Mexican military bands.
Becoming an American Celebration
Worldwide, the biggest Cinco de Mayo celebration is found in the United States. It became a popular celebration among American citizens as a way to spotlight the growing Latino population within this country.
On May 5 of 1867, five years after the ‘Batalla de Puebla’, a group of Mexicans celebrated the battle’s triumph in Texas. This state was the birthplace of General Zaragoza, when it was part of Mexican territory.
Since then, it became tradition to celebrate Cinco de Mayo among Mexicans living in the US states that once belonged to Mexico. By 1930, the Mexican consulate of LA officially celebrated Cinco de Mayo, uniting all of the Mexicans that already lived there and the migrants who had just recently arrived.
Today, Cinco de Mayo is still celebrated among Americans, becoming the most popular day to celebrate Mexican culture within the United States.