I can’t help but wonder what is Cinco de Mayo anyway? Even I, an outright Chilanga (person from Mexico City), find myself a little confused as to what this puzzling and yet enticing holiday really means.
In an attempt to clarify this festivity that inspires us to go to toast with tacos and Negra Modelo I volunteered to do a little investigating. This is what I found:
Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence day as many people might think, which is in fact September 16. Cinco De Mayo commemorates the victory of Mexico over the French Army at the Batalla de Puebla (Battle of Puebla) in 1862.
The Battle of Puebla happened at a particularly chaotic time in Mexico’s history. Still recovering from the process of gaining its own independence from Spain in 1821 and having gone through several violent and confusing political wars and takeovers, Mexico had accumulated heavy international debts, primarily with England, Spain and France.
After Mexico was unable to make the payments for a couple of years, these three countries decided that they needed to take action to claim their payment, in effect acting as their own repo man. But France had plans that went beyond their debt settlement. France was eager to expand its empire and moved forward, aiming to establish its own leadership in Mexico. When Spain and England learned of France’s plan, they backed out.
France invaded the gulf coast of Mexico through the state of Veracruz and began marching toward Mexico City. It was in Puebla where the French Army encountered a small and poorly armed militia of about 4,500 men led by General Igancio Zaragoza. This small troop of men was able to stop and defeat the well equipped and much larger French army of 6,500 men.
But this victory was short lived. Upon hearing the bad news, Napoleon III (nephew/ step grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte) sent more troops to try to invade Mexico again. This time, more than 30,000 troops were sent to complete the job, and a full year later, the French overtook Mexico and installed Maximilian and his wife Carlota as Emperor of Mexico.
As it turns out, Maximilian’s rule of Mexico was also short lived: 1864 -1867. With help from the U.S. who began to provide more military and political support to Mexico, the French were expelled and Maximilian was executed. (You can still see the shirt he was wearing when he was killed on display at the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City).
Despite the eventual French invasion of Mexico, Cinco de Mayo celebrates the bravery and victory of General Zaragoza’s small and ill equipped militia who was able to hold off the French invasion for a year.
The Current Celebration
Even though it is recognized as an official holiday in Mexico, it is not a date that is widely celebrated like it is here. Celebrating Cinco de Mayo has become increasingly popular in the USA, particularly along the US-Mexico border and areas with a high population of people with Mexican heritage. It has, in fact, become a celebration of Mexican culture, food, music, beverage and customs, as well as a viable excuse to party among fraternities, bar owners, and gringos alike.
Commercial interests have also proven to be an important force in the promotion of this holiday. Products and services, food and beverages focusing on Mexican traditions have been some of the most visible promoters.
Several cities throughout the USA, including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, hold parades and concerts during the first week of May to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, a holiday, that primarily north of the border, has become a day to celebrate Mexican culture (and beer), and an opportunity to sport some really cool and very patriotic gear.