Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican celebration that is strangely more popular abroad than within Mexico. For the average Mexican, Cinco de Mayo carries little to no meaningful impact, unlike other celebrations, such as September 15, Mexico’s Independence Day. Nowadays, Americans seem to pay more attention to the date, using it as a sort of excuse for a fiesta mexicana. Still, Mexicans are somewhat familiar with the history of the celebration. And although Cinco de Mayo isn’t as popular in Mexico as it is in the United States, it is still commemorated by federal, state, and local authorities, with official celebrations occurring throughout the country. Here are 5 interesting facts about the holiday.
1. Cinco de Mayo Commemorates the Battle of Puebla, Not Mexico’s Independence Day
Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not the celebration of Mexican independence, even though it also involved the fight for national sovereignty. In reality, Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Mexican victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla. The French Empire under Napoleon III had invaded Mexico after the latter had failed to pay its debts and sought to renegotiate them. Initially, France was joined by Spain and England in the efforts to force Mexico to pay. All three nations sent their navies and armies to the Mexican port of Veracruz, where they disembarked, forcing Mexico to take serious notice. Eventually, Mexico was able to negotiate with Spain and England, but the French had apparently come to Mexico with imperialist intentions and refused to an agreement.
The interventionist efforts of the French Empire were motivated by Napoleon III’s imperialist attitudes but were ultimately welcomed and facilitated by the reactionary Mexican conservatives, who had just recently lost a war against the liberals in the Guerra de Reforma (Reform War). The conservatives opposed President Benito Juarez’s administration and sought to form a monarchical government led by a European royal. Thus, the conservatives met with Napoleon III, agreed to support his intervention, and later traveled to meet with Austrian archduke Maximilian to convince him to take the new hypothetical Mexican throne.
When the French advanced on Mexico City, the nation’s capital, they were met with resistance from Mexican forces under General Ignacio Zaragoza, but nothing that the French forces couldn’t handle. The Mexican troops reorganized in Puebla to prepare for a major defense of the road toward the capital. Here, on the 5th of May 1862, the Battle of Puebla broke out.
2. Mexico Won the Battle but Ultimately Lost the War
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The outcome of the Battle of Puebla was unexpected, to say the least. The successful Mexican defense forced the French forces to retreat, regroup and wait for reinforcements. The French army was considered one of the best and most dangerous armed forces of the time, yet a few thousand largely unprepared, non-career Mexican soldiers were able to repel the aggression and provide some key time for the Mexican government to reorganize and prepare for the potential occupation.
Although la Batalla de Puebla is remembered as one of Mexico’s greatest military victories, the French Empire went on to siege the city once more only a year later, though this time successfully. After 62 days, the French forces defeated the Mexican army, which had lost its key tactician to illness, General Zaragoza. The French victory in Puebla allowed them to reach Mexico City and commence the occupation. The Second Mexican Empire was created, and Archduke Maximilian from the House of Habsburg-Lorraine was made Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian’s empire was founded with the support of the reactionaries, conservatives, and elites within Mexico, but a significant opposition remained with the liberals, who were forced to mount resistance and an itinerant government away from the invaders.
Despite losing the war, Mexico remembers the Battle of Puebla with great respect. The successful defense is painted by the government as a major act of heroism and patriotism. And though the date is barely commemorated nowadays by the broad public, it still receives special attention for being a moment in time when Mexico stood against a European imperialist power and won.
3. The Battle Involved Some of Mexico’s Most Emblematic Figures
The Battle of Puebla not only marked one of the most consequential moments in Mexico’s history but also involved some of its most emblematic leaders and figures, both directly and indirectly. The Battle itself was led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, who became a Mexican war hero after defeating the French in arms. However, he wouldn’t live long to see it happen, as he died of typhoid fever only a few months later. Zaragoza used to appear on Mexico’s currency, on the 500 pesos note.
Another famous figure who participated in the Battle was General Porfirio Diaz, fighting under Zaragoza and successfully helping in defeating the French. Diaz would later become Mexico’s dictator for over three decades.
Also present in the battle were the French leaders responsible for the invasion, namely Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez, and Frédéric Forey. Lorencez oversaw most of the fighting during the initial phase of the invasion. He was successful in most engagements, but his advance was stopped at the Battle of Puebla, leading to his demotion and public humiliation. Once removed from his position, General Forey took charge of the offensive and led the French troops to defeat the Mexican army at Puebla and capture Mexico City. He was rewarded with the position of Marshal of France and returned to France.
Not present in the but still crucial to its outcome was the Mexican president, Benito Juarez. The invasion dealt a huge blow to the development of the Mexican state, which had just ended a civil war. Nevertheless, Juarez’s administration led from a distance and waited until it was the right moment to return. His government was greatly controversial as it led to major liberal reforms that challenged the conservative and religious status quo.
4. The Effects of the Battle and the Second Mexican Empire
The French intervention in Mexico was ultimately fruitless for the French. Lasting from 1863 to 1867, the Empire never truly consolidated and was instead a puppet state dependent on the French’s willingness to continue with the occupation. Juarez’s government abandoned the capital and retreated north to the border states, where he led a sort of government-in-exile.
Meanwhile, Maximilian’s government led a quite liberal and progressive agenda. This was an unexpected and unwelcome performance for the conservatives who had struggled to bring him power; hence he faced opposition from the elites and even the Church. Maximilian was also obviously disliked by the liberals, who mounted a resistance and strived to oust the Empire. Some, however, sided with Maximilian in the name of advancing liberal policies. Juarez was even offered a ministry within the administration, but he refused. The Second Mexican Empire was hardly ever going to make it as a true nation.
The Empire depended on the French army, and if it were ever recalled to France, the entire structure would fall. This is exactly what happened once conflict with Prussia seemed likely, and the American government gained strength after the Civil War. By 1867, the French had left, and Maximilian dedicated himself to managing the defense against the Republican resistance. He chose not to abdicate, and in that same year, he was ousted and shot. The affair was painted by renowned French impressionist Édouard Manet. Juarez returned to Mexico City, and la républica restaurada (the restored republic) was established. Mexico would never again be invaded or intervened by a European power.
5. The Weird History Behind the American Celebration of Cinco de Mayo
In reality, Cinco de Mayo is, in many ways, a celebration of its own. While it originates from the Battle of Puebla, the reasons for its existence are debatable. Yet the clear truth behind Cinco de Mayo is that it is, in essence, a celebration of Mexican-American culture popular among the Chicano and Latin American communities.
Some say that Cinco de Mayo began in California when Mexicans who had moved there or had been living there before the United States annexed the territory began celebrating their cultural heritage after the defeat of the French. Others argue that the celebration comes after the American interest in a French defeat. At the moment, America was divided and at war with itself. The French Empire was ambiguous but could at any moment support the Confederacy and turn the war in their favor. Hence, a major French defeat was welcomed by the Americans, and their ultimate retreat from Mexico was equally favored.
The most likely origin is perhaps a combination of the two, with Mexican-Americans feeling a sense of pride after the victory of the French and a sort of reconciliation of their identity after their marginalization and oppression within the United States.
It is clear that it is easier to explain why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated today and to what it originally owes its name and inspiration. Pointing toward a precise origin within the United States is complicated but maybe also unnecessary. Like Saint Patrick’s Day for Irish Americans, Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of Mexican culture, identity, and the cultural syncretism within the United States and the Latin American diaspora.