Cinco de Mayo celebrates the day the Mexican Army defeated France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. In Mexico, this is also celebrated as Battle of Puebla Day.
Cinco de Mayo will next be celebrated on Friday, May 5, 2023.
Americans sometimes confuse Cinco de Mayo with a different observation, Mexican Independence Day, which is celebrated on September 16, and marks an anniversary some five decades before the Battle of Puebla. Google also says over 12,000 people search for “When is Cinco de Mayo.”
While the History Channel reports that the 5th of May is “…a relatively minor holiday in Mexico”, in America the 5th of May has grown into an important celebration of Mexican culture.
Cinco de Mayo celebrates the outcome of a single battle. In 1861 Mexico was experiencing extreme financial difficulty; so much so that the country defaulted on debt payments to France, Britain, and Spain. Ships from these countries began sailing to Mexico, with an eye on getting the country to pay its creditors. The full military might of these western powers wasn’t steaming its way to Mexico, but enough ships arrived to convince anyone that serious business was about to happen.
Britain and Spain wound up negotiating with the Mexican government instead of fighting. But France chose to force an armed confrontation, attacking Veracruz and forcing government leaders to hide.
It’s not a surprising development when you consider that Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte III was leading France at the time and there was a reported desire to have a Mexican government more amenable to the French.
That’s actually putting it a bit mildly; France wanted to intervene in Mexico to replace the republic there and establish a monarchy friendly to Napoleon’s interests.
Some 6,000 French troops attacked Puebla de Los Angeles, where they were met by a much smaller, but dedicated group of defenders hastily rounded up from the local area and places nearby. There were some 2000 in all, standing their ground.
When they engaged the French, some 500 to 1000 invaders died in the battle, depending on which sources you read. The defenders, by comparison, may have lost fewer than 100 soldiers.
This battle was not a major victory against the French in terms of strategy or numbers, but the symbolic defeat was crucial as it fanned the flames of resistance. In 1867, France gave up its attempt to claim parts of Mexico for itself.
In Mexico there are celebrations, but Mexican Independence Day is often mentioned by way of comparison. Independence Day in Mexico is the bigger and more elaborate of the two. That said, in Puebla, there are annual observances that have included parades and even reenactments of the battle.
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated as a major cultural event, especially in California where the shared border with Mexico makes it possible to have a true cultural exchange rather than appreciating Mexico from afar. In California there are events held in many counties; block parties, concerts, food truck events, and many other gatherings.
The California Secretary Of State official site does not list Cinco de Mayo as an official state holiday, so no post office or school closures typically happen on this day, but there are Californians who treat it in all other respects as an opportunity to recognize an important holiday.
The City of San Jose official site notes that there has been a Cinco de Mayo observance in California every year since 1863.
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