Cinco De Mayo, Spanish for May 5th, celebrates Mexico's unlikely victory over French forces in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It is not Mexico's Independence Day, as many American's believe. That day is September 16th and is honestly a much bigger deal in Mexico. Cinco De Mayo isn't even a national holiday in Mexico, though kids do get the day off from school. Why is Cinco De Mayo important? Why do we celebrate it in the United States? Well, we have to go back a little ways.
Mexico had just been trounced by America in 1848 during the Mexican-American War, which basically gave us all of southwest America. Ten years later, Mexico would be split between Conservatives and Liberals on how the government would be run, resulting in a three year civil war. The Liberals came out on top, but then the Treasury didn't have any money due to the war, so the Mexican President, Benito Jaurez, decided to put a halt on paying foreign debt for two years. Sounds great for Mexico, right? Get some time to get their legs back under them and build the treasury back up! Well that didn't work for those countries that lent them the money and expected interest payments. France, Britain, and Spain decided that they would make an example out of Mexico and formed a coalition to get their money back, which included sending their naval armadas to Mexico. France was the big proponent to this whole thing, but it was less about the money they lent out, and more about the money they could make from invading Mexico and snatching up their resources. When Britain and Spain found out that France was planning to take Mexico for themselves, they quickly left the coalition and worked out a deal with Mexico. France was alone but still determined to take over Mexico.
France could not only use the plentiful silver mines in Mexico to build their riches, but also use the country as a foothold in Latin America. If they installed a puppet government in Mexico, they could use that to open up other Latin countries to trade. The best part was that the U.S. was now involved in their Civil War and would be too busy to help the Mexican government. The French, at the time one of the most formidable armies in the world, landed on the eastern coast of Mexico in Veracruz and easily drove out the Mexican forces. Slowly the French forces worked their way toward Mexico City and assured victory. The French forces met unsuspected heavy resistance close to Puebla and the 6,000 French troops attempted to crush the much smaller and poorly equipped 2,000 strong Mexican troops. To everyone's disbelief, the small Mexican force was able to decisively defeat the French forces. The Mexican army was able to stave off the French for another year, until the 30,000 strong French troops were finally able to push the Mexican forces from Mexico City and install their own government, led by Emperor Maximilian I, who was Austrian royalty that had agreed to help France conquer the Mexicans. The Mexican forces were still very active during the three year reign of Maximilian, using mostly guerrilla warfare. Maximilian ruled his puppet government from 1864 to 1867, which abruptly ended when he found himself in front of a firing squad. Where did it all go wrong? Things started to go downhill when America finished its Civil War and could more explicitly give aid to Mexico. Then, the French troops officially vacated Mexico in 1866. It was only a matter of time before the Mexican troops re-took Mexico City and had Maximilian put to death. Benito Jaurez, the Mexican President who decided to stop paying Mexico's debts was re-established as their ruler. Fun side note, this was the SECOND time France tried to force Mexico to pay its debts, the first being called the Pastry War, though that one only lasted a few months.
Cinco De Mayo celebrations came immediately to America in the 1860's, though they were completely confined to California for almost 100 years. Mexican miners in California started impromptu celebrations when they heard about the Mexican victory, and celebrations started every year to celebrate Mexican pride. It wasn't until the 1950's that the celebration spread to other parts of western America, thanks in large part to the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. The holiday truly grew in the 1980's when marketers, especially beer companies, capitalized on the celebratory nature of the day and began to promote it. It started as Mexican miners in California celebrating their country's victory in the 1860's to a generic celebration of Mexican culture and heritage. The holiday is huge in cities with large Mexican-American populations, but you can find celebrations basically everyone in America now. As stated before, in Mexico, this is "Battle of Puebla Day" and kids get a day off of school. The holiday is a much bigger deal in Puebla and Veracruz, where it is an official holiday, meaning everyone gets a day off. Cinco De Mayo is even celebrated in large cities around the world like Tokyo, Paris, and London, where they celebrate both American and Mexican culture.
Cinco De Mayo has become a day less about unlikely military victories and more about celebrating Mexico as a whole. Most celebrations boil down to going to a Mexican restaurant or making tacos at home. That's good enough for most people, and that's alright. For me, it's just fun to see why we have these holidays and why we are celebrating at all. That being said, I'm still going to get some Mexican food.