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Cinco de Mayo history: Why the US celebrates Mexico’s 1862 Battle of Puebla victory 

On the fifth of May each year, Americans across the nation celebrate Cinco de Mayo — a holiday often mistaken as Mexican Independence Day.

Mexicans actually celebrate their independence on Sept. 16, and Cinco de Mayo is not a national holiday in Mexico.

So what is Cinco de Mayo, and why is it celebrated in the U.S.?

History of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo, which translates to the “fifth of May” in English, is a holiday meant to commemorate the Mexican military’s victory in the 1862 Battle of Puebla during the country’s war with France.

In 1861, newly-elected Mexican president Benito Juárez was forced to default on debt payments to Europe as the the country was in “financial ruin,” according to History.com. In response to Mexico’s default, military forces were sent to Veracruz, Mexico from France, Britain and Spain to demand payment.

An engraving of the Siege of Puebla during the Second French Intervention in Mexico in 1862.
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

British and Spanish forces reportedly negotiated with Mexico and withdrew their men from the country, but France did not do the same.

Instead, Napoleon III, who was leading France at the time, decided to try and make an empire out of Mexican territory, History.com reports. French military members invaded Veracruz in late 1861, forcing Juarez to retreat. The fight moved to the Mexican city of Puebla, where the tables turned for Mexico’s military.

A portrait of Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon Bonaparte) by painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter.
 DEA/G. Dagli Orti/De Agostini via Getty Images

On May 5, 1862, Mexican forces — largely outnumbered by French forces — achieved an unlikely victory in the Battle of Puebla. Mexico lost fewer than 100 out of 2,000 men in the battle, while France lost about 500 out of 6,000 men.

The Battle of Puebla was not a major strategic win for Mexico in the Franco-Mexican War, officials say, but the unlikely victory served as a symbolic victory for the Mexican government.

French troops fully withdrew from Mexico in 1867, and Maximilian I, the Austrian archduke Napoleon installed as the country’s emperor, was eventually captured and executed.

Emperor Maximillian of Mexico was executed in 1867.Bettmann

In honor of the Mexican victory, Puebla de Los Angeles was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza, and Cinco de Mayo was made a national holiday.

Is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in Mexico?

Cinco de Mayo is a relatively small holiday in the country of Mexico. The victory of the Battle of Puebla is primarily celebrated in the city of Puebla, which largely recognizes the victory through military reenactments.

A monument to Ignacio Zaragoza, hero of the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, in Puebla de Zaragoza, Mexico.    DeAgostini/Getty Images

For the rest of Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is not considered a national holiday, so businesses are still open and people still go to work like any other day.

Mexican Independence Day is on Sept. 16.

Why is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in the U.S.?

The small-time Mexican holiday was promoted heavily in the United States in the 1960s by activists who, in part, “identified with the victory of Indigenous Mexicans (such as Juárez) over European invaders during the Battle of Puebla,” History.com says.

FMexican dancers wait in the Colonnade at a Cinco de Mayo reception in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on May 5, 2010. UPI/Olivier Douliery/Pool

Many Americans now view the annual holiday as a day to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage. The holiday is often recognized through parades, parties and indulging in traditional Mexican foods. While it’s celebrated across the U.S., Cinco celebrations are especially popular in regions with significant Mexican-American populations.

So, this year, instead of just focusing on margaritas and colorful hats, perhaps consider the historical significance of Cinco de Mayo and our neighbor’s rich history and culture.

By Cassidy Johncox

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