As April comes to a close, many Americans will be spending next weekend celebrating Cinco de Mayo, whether by getting together with friends, attending local events, or just loading up on tacos and beer at their local Mexican Restaurant. Despite the popularity though, a large portion of Americans do not know what the day celebrates. According to a 2020 poll, 41% of respondents were confident that Cinco de Mayo celebrated Mexican Independence Day, while another 19% were unsure what the day represented. These roughly 60% of Americans would likely be surprised to find out then that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day, but rather the celebration of a victory by the Mexican Army over France in 1862. That’s why today I hope to share information about the history of Cinco de Mayo, how celebrations have evolved over time, and why it is important to so many Americans today.  

To be able to talk about the battle that Cinco de Mayo celebrates, we must first talk about a little bit of Mexico’s history. Like the area that is now the USA, much of modern-day Mexico was colonized by Europe (mostly Spain in this case). After Mexico gained independence in 1821, the country went through many decades of different forms of government, different rulers, and different political ideologies and goals, with dictators taking on loans from other countries to build up their armies and suppress dissent.  

After ousting the previous ruler in 1855, the country worked to create a republic with elected representatives and a new constitution, but conservative Mexicans who wanted another monarchal government fought against the reforms that more liberal Mexicans wanted, such as a decrease in Executive powers and a separation of Church and State. This disagreement led to a civil war, called the Mexican Reform War, from 1857-1861, which ended with the liberal side winning and leader of the liberal forces, Benito Juarez, as President (for more information about the Mexican Reform War, check out this article from the University of Texas). Both the liberals and conservatives took on loans to fund the war, and between these loans and that of previous dictators, Mexico owed a large amount of money to Great Britain, Spain, and France that it could not afford to pay back. With encouragement from the conservatives who still wanted to take power back from liberals, France invaded Mexico in an effort both to force a return of money and to expand colonial power in the Americas, taking advantage of the fact that the USA was too preoccupied with its own civil war to intervene.  

The French invasion of Mexico, beginning in late 1861, is where Cinco de Mayo comes in. France invaded through the Gulf of Mexico and traveled by land across central Mexico, working their way towards the capitol, Mexico City. On the way, Juarez’s army, significantly outnumbered and outgunned, won a decisive, if short-lived, victory against French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862. Estimates vary, but most put the French Army’s approximately six thousand men against three thousand Mexican troops, who were significantly less well-armed but managed to force France’s retreat (for more information about the battle itself, check out this article). Although France would go on to take Mexico City in 1864, Juarez declared May 5th a national holiday and utilized this unexpected victory to motivate soldiers to keep fighting, motivate average citizens to support the war efforts, and create a sense of shared pride in Mexico’s resistance efforts that would eventually lead to France’s withdrawal in 1867. Mexico would celebrate Cinco de Mayo as a national holiday until the early 1900s, around the start of the Mexican Revolution. 

So, if the Battle of Puebla was just an unexpected victory within a war that didn’t involve the USA, why is it celebrated here? Part of this is because even though the USA was not in the war itself, its citizens were nevertheless involved. Post-US Civil War, the US government supplied weapons to Juarez’s army to aid against the French. Even before that, many American citizens were, at most, one generation removed from Mexican citizenship, and still had close ties. Both the Texas Revolution, which declared citizens of Texas as independent from Mexico and was the precursor to their introduction as a US state, and the Mexican American war from 1846 to 1848, which gave everyone living in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, and Utah US citizenship overnight when Mexico ceded that land to the US, meant that many people alive at the time of the Battle of Puebla had either themselves been Mexican citizens, or their parents had, only a decade or two before. Some of these previously Mexican communities moved south to fight in the war, including one of the leading Generals in the Battle of Puebla, and others who did not fight knew friends and family who did, and still celebrated their victory (for more information about the evolution of the Mexico/USA border and citizenship, check out this article from USA Today). This very recent connection to Mexico for these communities made this war particularly important, and the sense of cultural pride in Mexico spread across the border as well.  

In addition to early celebrations by US citizens with ties to Mexico, Cinco de Mayo was particularly important in the US a century later, during the rise of the Chicano Movement in the 1950s to 1970s. The Chicano Movement was a Mexican American political and social movement that worked to highlight the contributions of Mexican Americans, combat discrimination, and empower Mexican American communities, and Cinco de Mayo was a powerful symbol of Mexican resistance of oppressors. Mexican Americans across the USA, but particularly in the Southwestern states, celebrated their heritage, culture, and historical and current resistance of oppression and assimilation each year on this day.  

Since the 1970s and 80s the Chicano Movement may have decreased in popularity and awareness, but Cinco de Mayo has not. Like many other holidays from Saint Patrick’s Day to Christmas, corporations have recognized the money to be made selling supplies, decorations, and alcohol to those looking to celebrate, and Americans of all races and ethnicities now celebrate Cinco de Mayo with their favorite Mexican food, drinks, and music. Many people still take this day every year to celebrate their own Mexican American identity and heritage, or if not Mexican themselves, the positive impact that Mexican Americans have had in our society and communities, but celebrations have, by and large, transitioned away from recognition of the original battle and resistance, and towards appreciation for Mexican foods, alcohol, and other consumable products. For more information about the evolution and controversies regarding celebrations in the US, check out this article from the Washington Post. 

Cinco de Mayo was originally founded as a celebration of Mexican American identity and resistance, and while this is not the focus of many Americans today, it is still worth celebrating this heritage, contribution to society, and diverse culture on May 5th and all year long. This might mean sharing personal stories, researching the history of the battle or of Mexican American culture, or supporting local Mexican American businesses, while doing our best to avoid stereotyping, dressing up in offensive costumes, or making assumptions about how Mexican American communities chose to celebrate, or not celebrate, the holiday. To learn more about how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, check out this article from CNN, and to learn more about Mexican American history and Mexican American culture today, check out a book from this list