Cinco de Mayo is a holiday that commemorates the Battle of Puebla that occurred on May 5, 1862 between the Mexican Army and the French. In 1861, after the Mexican-American War and a decade of national conflict, president Benito Juárez was forced to impose a two-year suspension of debt payments to the Spanish, French, and English in order to help rectify his country’s fraught financial situation. While the English and Spanish peacefully resolved their issues with Mexico and retreated, the French saw the conflict as an opportunity to invade the country and set up an empire in North America. The French army landed in Veracruz, Mexico in late 1861 and quickly began their journey inland.
The French advance was stopped, however, when General Ignacio Zaragoza and his army of Zapotec Indians and Mestizo (individuals of mixed race, often indigenous and white European) soldiers successfully defeated the French army on that fateful day in 1862. Despite being largely outnumbered, the Mexican army was able to delay French progress and lost less than 100 soldiers (in contrast, the French army lost 500 men). Although the Battle of Puebla was not a major tactical win against the French, it served the important purposes of symbolizing of Mexican triumph and invigorating the resistance movement.
Interestingly, today Cinco de Mayo is more widely celebrated in the United States than in Mexico itself. While the holiday is still commemorated in Puebla with events such as reenactments and parades, the day is a relatively quiet one for Mexican people. In the United States, however, the holiday has become a rich celebration of Mexican culture and heritage that is celebrated nationally.
Although Cinco de Mayo had already been celebrated by Mexican American people for a good deal of time, the holiday rose to prominence in the 1960s. During this time Chicano activists working within the Civil Rights Movement began bringing attention to the holiday as a source of ethnic pride and showcased the battle as an instance of Indigenous Mexican victory over European imperialism. In the 1980s, the holiday began receiving more attention through corporate sponsorships from beverage companies such as Modelo and Corona. Some scholars, however, have been highly critical of this commercialization and the stereotyping that it has opened the holiday up to.
Today Cinco de Mayo celebrations are held annually across the United States and frequently feature events that highlight Mexican culture and heritage such as folkloric dance, parades, and mariachi music. If you are interested in respectfully celebrating the holiday and would like to learn more about Mexican American culture, feel free to investigate the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, a local organization committed to the promotion of Mexican American and Latino cultural arts.
- Cinco de Mayo is not a celebration of Mexican Independence. Mexico secured its independence from Spain on September 16, 1810, 50 years before the Battle of Puebla.
- The Barrientos center is currently closed, but you can explore their digital resources here.
- Here is an interesting read from the Smithsonian about pre-1960 Cinco de Mayo celebrations in California. It details the tensions between corporate sponsors and Mexican American interests.
Cabrera, Claudio E., and Louis Lucero II. “What Is Cinco de Mayo?” The New York Times, May 5, 2018, sec. Business. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/05/business/cinco-de-mayo-facts-history.html.
“Cinco de Mayo,” April 8, 2006. https://web.archive.org/web/20060408054236/http://www.clnet.ucla.edu/cinco.html.
Editors, History com. “Cinco de Mayo.” HISTORY. Accessed April 25, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/cinco-de-mayo.
Encyclopedia Britannica. “Mestizo | Definition & Facts.” Accessed April 25, 2021.