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Spirit, Strength, and Sacrifice: The History and Significance of Cinco de Mayo

Many Americans celebrate Cinco de mayo, but very few know its true history and significance
The sun shining down between branches and leaves

The sun shining down between branches and leaves /Ann-Marie Jurek

In the United States, Cinco de mayo (the "Fifth of May") is typically celebrated with an array of colorful decorations, music, alcohol, and Mexican cuisine. This holiday, symbolic of Mexican pride, history, and culture, is observed by many Americans, regardless of ethnicity.  

In fact, many American cities boast some of the largest and most vibrant Cinco de mayo parades and festivals in the world. From Chicago to Houston and Los Angeles to New York City, many Americans living in metropolitan areas will find no shortage of ways to celebrate. Fiesta Broadway, which takes place in Los Angeles, has been called the "largest celebration of Cinco de Mayo in the world" by numerous travel sites and blogs. In Phoenix, the Cinco de Mayo Phoenix Festival offers attendees an opportunity to experience facets of Mexican culture through music, “lucha libre,” and “baile folklorico.” Even locally, right here in Grand Rapids, there are plenty of activities, events, and parties for Grand Rapidians to take part in.

However, despite Cinco de mayo’s popularity in the United States, its history and overall significance has been greatly misconstrued by the general public. 

According to a 2020 survey conducted by YouGov, 41% of American participants were under the impression that Cinco de mayo is a celebration of Mexico's Independence Day (which actually falls on September 16). In another survey by National Today, only 10% of respondents knew the true history of Cinco de mayo.

“A lot of people believe it is an Independence Day,” says Arturo Morales Romero, a local artist and member of the Mexican Heritage Association of West Michigan’s Board of Directors, in an interview on Tuesday, April 25. “It is not an Independence [Day] for Mexico. Cinco de Mayo is based on the Battle of Puebla, which was between the French army [and Mexico]...”


The Second Franco-Mexican War and the History of Cinco de Mayo

In 1861, immediately following the Reform War (also known as the Three Years' War), Mexico found itself in conflict with the European nations of Spain, Great Britain, and France. This tension stemmed from the inability of the new Mexican government, under the leadership of President Benito Juárez, to immediately repay debts it had incurred during the civil war. A temporary (two-year) moratorium was implemented by the Mexican government in July to allow the country to recover economically. In response, representatives from France, Great Britain, and Spain gathered in London to sign a treaty (The Convention of London) that detailed their joint intervention in Mexico.

According to an article from the New York Times that was published on December 5, 1861, Article I of the treaty stated that:

"Her Majesty [Victoria] the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Her Majesty [Isabella II] the Queen of Spain, and His Majesty [Napoleon III] the Emperor of the French, engage to make, immediately after the signature of the present Convention, the necessary arrangements for dispatching to the coast of Mexico combined naval and military forces, the strength of which shall be determined by a further interchange of communications between their Governments, but of which the total shall be sufficient to seize and occupy the several fortresses and military positions on the Mexican coast."

The Spanish were the first to arrive in Mexico, occupying the city of Heroica Veracruz on December 17, 1861. A few weeks later, they were joined by the French and British. Several other nearby towns were also occupied.

Unsurprisingly, this intervention was not well-received by the Mexican government. The invading Europeans insisted that they had not arrived in the name of conquest, but simply wished to discuss the repayment of Mexico's loans. This was not entirely true.

Napoleon III, the "Emperor of the French" (and nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), was an ambitious man who sought to revive the French Empire and expand French influence throughout the world. Feeling emboldened by the outbreak of the American Civil War and the United States's subsequent inability to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, he made the decision to invade and conquer Mexico. His main goal was to create a new Mexican government led by a European monarchist. By doing this, he would ensure that he had an unshakeable ally in the Americas. He also wanted to bolster the French economy by establishing a trade network with the Confederate States of America and selling American products, particularly items like cotton (which had been produced using slave labor), for profit in European markets.    

The Mexican government eventually decided to hold negotiations with the French, British, and Spanish in Orizaba (a city about 67 miles inland from Heroica Veracruz). After it became obvious that Napoleon's ambitions would result in a war with Mexico, the British and Spanish quickly agreed on a settlement with the Mexican government and returned to Europe. Further encouraged by the Mexican conservatives that had been defeated during the Reform War, French forces took control of Orizaba.

The Second Franco-Mexican War officially began on April 20, 1862. 

About two weeks later, the French army (led by General Charles de Lorencez) attempted to capture the city of Puebla. During the ensuing Battle of Puebla, the greatly outnumbered Mexican army (led by Generals Ignacio Zaragoza and Porfirio Diaz) held the line and eventually forced the French to retreat.  

The date of this battle?

May 5, 1862 -- Cinco de mayo.

News of the Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla quickly spread into the United States. Mexican miners in Columbia, California are believed to be the first to celebrate Cinco de mayo, singing, drinking, and cheering once news reached them via the La Voz de Méjico. In the years that followed, celebrations spread to other Californian cities and, eventually, to the rest of the country. 


Cinco de Mayo in the Contemporary United States

Despite the Battle of Puebla being a fairly significant event in Mexican history, Cinco de mayo is not as widely celebrated in Mexico as it is in the United States. It is primarily celebrated in the state of Puebla (where the battle took place) and celebrations typically involve parades, battle reenactments, and music.

This raises an important question: If Cinco de mayo isn't considered to be a "major" holiday in Mexico, then why is it so popular in the United States?

Some sources state that the growing popularity of Cinco de mayo in the United States over the last several decades can be attributed to the commercialization of the holiday by American alcohol producers in the 1980s. Others believe that it has to do with the Chicano movement (El Movimiento) that took place in the 1960s and 1970s, during which Cinco de mayo became a pinnacle celebration of Mexican and Mexican American culture. It has also been argued that Cinco de mayo's popularity is because of its indirect influence on the outcome of the American Civil War. According to an article written by Dave Roos on

"Some contend that the year-long delay of the French invasion [due to the Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla] gave Abraham Lincoln's generals just enough time to win decisive Union victories before Napoleon could provide upgraded artillery and munitions to the Confederacy."

Whatever the case may be, to many, Cinco de mayo is still representative of Mexican pride. It is a celebration of Mexican culture, as well as a testament to the unwavering spirit, steadfast strength, and heroic sacrifice of the Mexican soldiers who fought at the Battle of Puebla to defend their country from invading Europeans. It is that legacy that truly defines Cinco de mayo and gives it such a powerful meaning:

"Freedom," said Morales Romero. “We have to celebrate that we are free... that we are not [sic] slaves to no one.”


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