Cinco de Mayo translates to “Fifth of May” in English (or May 5th). Some people assume that “Fifth of May” is like “Fourth of July”, and think that Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence day. That assumption is incorrect. Mexico’s Independence day is celebrated on September 16th.
The original meaning of Cinco de Mayo was a celebration that commemorates the Battle of Puebla. There was a small town called Puebla de Los Angeles that was located in east-central Mexico. A battle happened there on May 5, 1862.
Benito Juarez became President of Mexico in 1861. At the time, Mexico had a lot of debt that it owed to European governments. Britain, France, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz, Mexico, for the purpose of demanding payment from the Mexican government. Both Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew their forces.
At the time, France was ruled by Napoleon III. France decided to try and carve a dependent empire out of Mexican territory. A French fleet stormed Veracruz and forced President Juarez and his government to retreat.
A total of 6,000 French troops, led by General Charles Latrille de Lorencez, set out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles. President Juarez was able to round up a group of men (who were not an organized army) and send them to defend Puebla. These 2,000 Mexicans were led by General Zaragoza (who was born in Texas). A battle ensued between these volunteer defenders and Lorencez’s well-provisioned army (and their heavy artillery).
The battle started at daybreak and continued into early evening. The French army retreated after losing 500 soldiers, and killing less than 100 Mexicans in Puebla. Cinco de Mayo celebrates General Zaragosa’s historic victory.
In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is mostly observed in Puebla, but other parts of Mexico may celebrate as well. There are parades and recreations of the Battle of Puebla. It is not a national holiday, so offices and banks are open on Cinco de Mayo.
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo has become a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage. Chicano activists raised awareness of Cinco de Mayo in the 1960’s. The largest festivals are held in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. There are smaller celebrations anywhere that has a substantial Mexican-American population.
The United States celebrations of Cinco de May often include parades, parties, mariachi bands playing live music, and Mexican folk dancing. Traditional Mexican foods are sold and served. Many people celebrate Cinco de Mayo with tacos and Margaritas.
Image by Gail Williams on Flickr.
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