What you didn’t know about Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo … the fifth of May—time to grab some chips and salsa and get the party started, right? But do you even know what you are celebrating? Maybe … Mexico’s Independence Day? Sorry, try again. No idea? It might be time to do a little research into Mexican history.

A float from a Cinco de Mayo Parade. (Credit: Louvonia McClain)

A float from a Cinco de Mayo Parade. (Credit: Louvonia McClain)

Here are the Cinco de Mayo facts—it is a holiday about celebrating freedom for Mexico and remembering the Battle of Puebla, a turning point during the French-Mexican War, but it is not the country’s Independence Day.

French-Mexican War

According to This Day in History “Cinco de Mayo” for The History Channel, the day that has become known as one long fiesta is actually a remembrance of the Battle of Puebla. The Mexican general, General Ignacio Zaragoza, and his poorly supplied army, managed to defeat the French at the Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico.

But why were the French in Mexico to begin with? The post explains, “In 1861, the liberal Mexican Benito Juarez became president of a country in financial ruin, and he was forced to default on his debts to European governments. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand reimbursement.”

While Britain and Spain negotiated a settlement with Mexico, France took the opportunity to try and make part of Mexico theirs, leading to a war.

Not Mexico’s Independence Day

Though outnumbered by the French, General Zaragoza managed to defeat their forces at the Battle of Puebla. This victory gave the morale of the Mexicans and their army a big boost. But it would take six more years before the French-Mexican War would be over.

Trace Dominguez wrote on May 5, 2014, for Discovery.com’s news section “Cinco de Mayo: NOT Mexico’s Independence Day” that those who believe the day is Mexico’s Independence Day are wrong. In addition, “The holiday was invented in modern-day California in 1863 and has continued to be celebrated in the United States, but is almost completely ignored in Mexico. Only a few states, including Puebla, recognize it,” he wrote.

Cinco de Mayo celebrations

In the United States, Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a festive event in many communities with large Mexican-American populations. The celebration of Mexican culture and heritage often includes parades, mariachi music performances and street festivals. Some of the largest events occur in Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles.

The Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, Illinois) published “History of Cinco De Mayo Cinco De Mayo in Mexico Cinco De Mayo in the United States Confusion with Mexican Independence Day” on April 27, 2014, with some more Cinco de Mayo facts about celebrating freedom, but not Mexico’s Independence Day. For instance, “For many Mexicans, however, May 5 is a day like any other: It is not a federal holiday, so offices, banks and stores remain open.”

In the U.S. the popularity of the holiday grew during the 1960s as a result of Chicano activists who identified with the victory of the Mexicans over their European invaders.

And what about the real Independence Day for Mexico? Well that actually happened almost 50 years before the Battle of Puebla. Celebrated on September 16, in honor of the anniversary of “revolutionary priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s famous ‘Grito de Dolores’ (“Cry of Dolores”), a call to arms that amounted to a declaration of war against the Spanish colonial government in 1810.”

Want to learn more about Mexican History? Check out Questia—particularly the section on Mexican Politics and Government and Hispanic American History

Are there other holidays, like Cinco de Mayo, that you don’t know the true origins of? Will you celebrate differently next time now that you know what the event is really about? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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