Cinco de Mayo: History and Major Facts

Cinco de Mayo, which translates to the “Fifth of May” in English, is widely recognized and celebrated primarily in the United States and Mexico. Contrary to popular misconception, it is not Mexico’s Independence Day. Instead, this day commemorates the Mexican Army’s surprising victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Today, Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a vibrant cultural event that celebrates Mexican heritage and pride.

In the article below, World History Edu takes an in-depth look at the history and major facts surrounding Cinco de Mayo:

Historical Background

To understand Cinco de Mayo, we must delve into the intricate tapestry of mid-19th century Mexican history. Following the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the Reform Wars (1858-1861), Mexico found itself in a precarious economic situation. The country was virtually bankrupt, leading President Benito Juárez to declare a moratorium on all foreign debt payments for two years.

France, under the leadership of Napoleon III, saw this as an opportunity. Using the debt as a pretext, the French emperor sought to establish a satellite empire in the Americas that would counterbalance U.S. power, especially as the U.S. was embroiled in its Civil War at the time.

In late 1861, confident of an easy victory and with designs on Mexican resources, the well-trained French forces began their invasion.

Reasons why the United States didn’t annex Mexico following the Mexican-American War

Battle of Puebla

It was in the town of Puebla, on May 5, 1862, where the pivotal confrontation took place. The Mexican forces, largely made up of indigenous Mexicans and mestizos (people of mixed European and indigenous descent), were under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza. The French were confident given their superior equipment and training. They advanced with around 6,000 troops. The Mexicans, on the other hand, numbered around 2,000.

The battle was fierce, but, against all odds, the Mexican army emerged victorious, having lost less than 100 men, while the French suffered casualties estimated at over 500. The victory was a significant morale boost for the Mexican forces and showcased their resilience and courage. However, this was not the end of the French invasion. By 1864, the French had taken over Mexico City and installed Maximilian of Austria as emperor. It wasn’t until 1867, with support from the U.S., that the French were expelled, and Maximilian was executed.

Painting depicting the Battle of Puebla in 1862, located at the Museo Nacional de las Intervenciones.

Significance and Misconceptions

While the Battle of Puebla was an impressive military feat for Mexico as a whole, it did not halt the French occupation. Regardless, the victory at Puebla held immense symbolic value. It bolstered the Mexican resistance and was a demonstration of Mexico’s ability to defend its sovereignty against one of the world’s foremost military powers.

In the U.S., Cinco de Mayo is often mistakenly believed to be Mexico’s Independence Day. The actual day of independence, “Día de la Independencia,” is celebrated on September 16th and marks Mexico’s declaration of independence from Spain in 1810. The conflation of the two dates is one of many misconceptions about Cinco de Mayo outside of Mexico.

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Celebration in Mexico and the U.S.

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is primarily observed in the state of Puebla, where the historic battle took place. Celebrations include military parades, recreations of the Battle of Puebla, and other festive events. It’s not a federal holiday, so businesses, schools, and government offices remain open.

On May 5, 1862, Mexican forces achieved an unexpected victory against a larger French army at the Battle of Puebla. This triumph, commemorated by Cinco de Mayo, halted France’s efforts to overthrow Mexico’s liberal government and set up a pro-French monarchy. Image: Mexican general and long-term reigning president Porfirio Díaz leading Mexican troops in celebration of Cinco de Mayo in 1902

In the U.S., Cinco de Mayo has taken on a significance beyond that in Mexico. The day became popular among Mexican-Americans as a symbol of their bi-cultural heritage and a time to celebrate their dual identities. Over the decades, this sentiment spread, and the day has transformed into a broader celebration of Mexican culture and heritage. Today, U.S. celebrations are characterized by music, parades, folk dancing, and foods influenced by Mexican cuisine. It’s also a significant sales day for businesses selling Mexican-themed products and services.

Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexican culture globally, influenced by media and popular culture.

On 5 May 1862, the Battle of Puebla saw the Mexican Republic’s forces triumph over the French Empire’s larger army. This unexpected victory, which inspired Cinco de Mayo celebrations, thwarted France’s attempt to topple Mexico’s liberal republican government and establish a pro-French monarchy. Image: “May 5, 1862 and the siege of Puebla”, a 1901 image from the Biblioteca del Niño Mexicano, a series of booklets for children detailing the history of Mexico

Criticism and Commercialization

Like many holidays, Cinco de Mayo has not been immune to commercialization. In the U.S., it has become a lucrative opportunity for marketing everything from food and alcohol to clothing and party supplies. This commercial focus has sometimes led to the day’s historical and cultural significance being overshadowed.

Furthermore, the way the holiday is celebrated in the U.S. often involves cultural appropriation and perpetuates stereotypes about Mexican culture. It’s essential to approach the day with respect and an understanding of its historical roots.

Reasons why Cinco de Mayo very much celebrated in the U.S.

Cinco de Mayo, while commemorating the Battle of Puebla in Mexico, has taken on a distinct identity in the United States. Here are several reasons why it’s notably celebrated in the U.S.:

  1. Chicano Movement: In the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican-American activists seized upon Cinco de Mayo as a symbol of ethnic pride. The celebration became an avenue for the Chicano Movement to emphasize Mexican heritage and promote cultural awareness in the midst of the civil rights era.
  2. Cultural Fusion: The U.S., particularly in the Southwest, has deep historical ties with Mexico. Over time, the two cultures have melded in these areas, and Cinco de Mayo has become a celebration of this hybrid identity.
  3. Marketing and Commercialization: Businesses, especially in the beverage and hospitality industries, saw the potential of Cinco de Mayo as a festive occasion to promote products, particularly beer, tequila, and food items. This commercial push played a significant role in popularizing the holiday among a wide demographic in the U.S.
  4. Community Celebrations: Over the years, many communities, especially those with a significant Mexican-American population, have organized parades, mariachi music performances, and folkloric dancing events, which help to bring together diverse groups of people in celebration.
  5. Educational Opportunity: Schools often use Cinco de Mayo as an opportunity to educate students about Mexican culture, history, and traditions. This has, in turn, led to a broader understanding and acceptance of the celebration across the country.
  6. Misconception of the Holiday: Many Americans mistakenly believe Cinco de Mayo to be Mexico’s Independence Day, lending it a significance that elevates its status as a holiday. In reality, Mexico’s Independence Day is on September 16th.
  7. General Affinity for Celebratory Events: The U.S. has a tradition of embracing and adapting various international holidays (e.g., St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest). Cinco de Mayo fits neatly into this trend, providing another reason for social gatherings and celebrations.

In essence, while the roots of Cinco de Mayo are in a Mexican military victory, its evolution in the U.S. is the product of a blend of social activism, commercial opportunity, and the nation’s propensity to celebrate diverse cultures. Over the decades, it has transformed into a broad celebration of Mexican culture and heritage.

In Conclusion

Cinco de Mayo, rooted in a 19th-century military victory, has grown into an international celebration of Mexican culture and heritage. It serves as a testament to the resilience and strength of the Mexican people, both in the face of foreign invaders and as a vibrant cultural community worldwide.

Whether in Puebla’s streets or U.S. cities, May 5th is a day to honor Mexican heritage and its profound influence on the global cultural landscape. As with any cultural celebration, it offers an opportunity not only for festivity but also for reflection on the rich tapestry of history and shared human experiences that it represents.

Frequently Asked Questions

Cinco de Mayo, or the Fifth of May, is a holiday that celebrates the Mexican army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Cinco de Mayo is often confused with Mexico’s Independence Day on September 16, marking the 1810 Cry of Dolores and the start of Mexico’s war against Spanish rule.

Here are 9 frequently asked questions about Cinco de Mayo and its origin story:

Is Cinco de Mayo Mexico’s Independence Day?

No. Cinco de Mayo is often mistaken for Mexico’s Independence Day, but that holiday is celebrated on September 16th.


Mexicans around the world celebrate September 16 in honor of the moment when Father Miguel Hidalgo called for Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1810. Reenactment of that historic moment is a common feature on Mexico’s Independence Day, which is a public holiday across country. Those events are filled with dance, feast and fireworks. Image: The Bell of Dolores

How is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in Mexico?

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is primarily observed in the state of Puebla, where the battle took place. The day is marked with parades, speeches, reenactments of the Battle of Puebla, and other festive events. It’s not a national holiday, so banks and stores remain open.

How is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in the United States?

In the U.S., Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a larger celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in areas with large Mexican-American populations. The day is marked with parades, parties, music, folk dancing, Mexican food, and sometimes, educational events about the history of the day.

Why is Cinco de Mayo more popular in the U.S. than in Mexico?

Over the years, Mexican-Americans have embraced the holiday as a symbol of cultural pride. The day has also been promoted by businesses, especially those selling Mexican food and beverages. This commercial aspect has contributed to its wider recognition and celebration.

Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexican culture globally, influenced by media and popular culture. Image: Performers at the US White House celebration of Cinco de Mayo May 4, 2007

What is the historical significance of the Battle of Puebla?

While the Battle of Puebla was a significant morale boost for the Mexican people, it was just one battle in the larger French intervention in Mexico. The French eventually captured Mexico City and installed Emperor Maximilian I as the ruler. However, the French occupation was short-lived, and Mexican forces eventually ousted the French and restored their republic.

What foods are commonly associated with Cinco de Mayo?

Traditional Mexican foods are enjoyed, such as tacos, enchiladas, tamales, guacamole, and churros. Beverages like margaritas and Mexican beer are also popular.

Is it appropriate to wear sombreros and fake mustaches on Cinco de Mayo?

It’s essential to approach cultural celebrations with sensitivity and respect. Wearing sombreros or fake mustaches can be seen as a form of cultural appropriation and can be offensive to some people. It’s better to celebrate in ways that honor and respect the history and culture without resorting to stereotypes.

Do other countries celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

While it’s mainly celebrated in Mexico and the U.S., some places, especially where there’s a significant Mexican expatriate community, might have smaller celebrations.

How can we respectfully celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

Educate ourselves about the history and significance of the day, support authentic Mexican businesses, enjoy traditional music and dance, and perhaps attend or organize educational events about Mexican history and culture.

More on the Battle of Puebla

Siège de Puebla by Jean-Adolphe Beaucé, 1863

Why did France invade Mexico in 1862?

The French Empire, led by Napoleon III, invaded Mexico following the country’s inability to repay debts and attempts at renegotiation. Initially, France collaborated with Spain and England in this endeavor, with all three nations deploying naval and military forces to Veracruz, capturing Mexico’s attention. While Mexico successfully negotiated settlements with Spain and England, leading to their withdrawal, France had ulterior motives.

Napoleon III was the third son of Louis Bonaparte, king of Holland (1806-1810), and Hortense de Beauharnais, queen of Holland. His father was the younger brother of French Emperor Napoleon I, while his mother was the stepdaughter of Napoleon I. Thus, his martenal grandmother Josephine was the wife of Napoleon I. Image: The Prince-President in 1852, after the coup d’état

Beyond debt collection, the French sought to establish imperial dominance in Mexico, hence they continued their campaign, unwilling to settle merely for financial reparations. This diverging agenda set the stage for the subsequent events, including the Battle of Puebla, which is remembered annually as Cinco de Mayo.

Why did the Mexican conservatives support French invasion of Mexico?

The Mexican conservatives, after losing the Reform War (Guerra de Reforma) to the liberals, collaborated with France to counteract President Benito Juarez’s rule. They favored a European-led monarchy over Juarez’s republican administration. Aligning with Napoleon III, they facilitated the French invasion and later persuaded Austrian Archduke Maximilian to accept the propositioned Mexican throne.

How were the French defeated at the Battle of Puebla (la Batalla de Puebla)?

As the French marched towards Mexico City, they encountered unexpected resistance from General Ignacio Zaragoza’s Mexican forces. Regrouping in Puebla, the Mexican troops prepared to defend the capital’s main access route. On May 5, 1862, the significant Battle of Puebla commenced. Surprisingly, the Mexicans, although less equipped and largely non-professional soldiers, managed to thwart the formidable French army, forcing them to retreat and await reinforcements. This victory against one of the world’s premier military powers bought crucial time for the Mexican government to strategize against the impending occupation.

Image: 5th May 1862. Depictions of the battle showing Mexican cavalry overwhelming the French troops below the fort at Loreto. Scene recreated by Francisco P. Miranda. Oil on canvas, 1872.

Who were the key figures that fought at the Battle of Puebla?

The Battle of Puebla, fought on May 5, 1862, was a pivotal engagement during the French intervention in Mexico. The key figures who played significant roles in this battle include:

Mexican Forces:

  • General Ignacio Zaragoza: The leading figure on the Mexican side, Zaragoza was tasked with defending Puebla from the advancing French forces. Despite being outnumbered and facing one of the most formidable armies of the time, Zaragoza’s leadership and the resilience of his troops resulted in a surprising and morale-boosting victory for the Mexicans.

Image: Mexican general and politician Ignacio Zaragoza; National Mexican Patriotic Center 19th century; Museum of Mexican History Collection

  • Porfirio Díaz: Future president of Mexico and, at that time, a young officer, Díaz distinguished himself during the battle. His aggressive tactics and leadership were instrumental in repelling the French assaults. Díaz would later play a significant role in Mexican politics and serve as the country’s president for several terms, establishing a long-lasting authoritarian regime.

French Forces:

  • General Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez: Leading the French expeditionary force, Lorencez was confident of a swift victory given his army’s superior numbers and equipment. He underestimated the defensive capabilities of the Mexican forces and the challenges posed by the terrain around Puebla. His miscalculations led to the unexpected French defeat.
  • Major figures in the French Foreign Legion: The French Foreign Legion, an elite unit of the French Army, played a significant role in the French intervention in Mexico. While the Battle of Puebla wasn’t their most famous engagement during the intervention, their involvement in the larger conflict was crucial. The Legion’s most notable action during this period was at the Battle of Camarón in 1863, a year after the Battle of Puebla.

French General Charles de Lorencez

What happened after la Batalla de Puebla?

La Batalla de Puebla, a monumental Mexican victory, ironically preceded a successful French siege of Puebla the following year. General Zaragoza’s untimely illness and death weakened the Mexican defense, enabling the French to conquer Mexico City and establish the Second Mexican Empire under Archduke Maximilian. This empire, supported by Mexican conservatives and elites, faced staunch opposition from liberals, compelling President Juarez to lead a makeshift government in the northern states.

Although initially envisioned as a stronghold of conservative values, Maximilian’s reign bore a surprising liberal tint, alienating not just the conservative base that had installed him but also the Church. Concurrently, the liberals, with Juarez at the helm, continuously sought to dismantle this empire. Notably, Maximilian did find some support among liberal ranks for his progressive policies, and even Juarez was approached for a role, which he declined.

Juarez, el clero y los imperialistas (Fragment) by Jose Clemente Orozco, 1957-1966

The empire’s survival hinged on French military support. As impending conflict with Prussia loomed and post-Civil War U.S. influence grew, France’s commitment waned. By 1867, the French troops had withdrawn, leaving Maximilian isolated. Opting not to abdicate, he soon faced capture and execution.

Juarez’s return marked the resurgence of the republic, and this episode ensured Mexico’s immunity from future European interventions.

The tragic end of Maximilian of Austria, emblematic of the empire’s downfall, was immortalized in Édouard Manet’s artwork. Image: The Execution of Emperor Maximilian by Édouard Manet, 1867-1869

Significance of the victory at the Battle of Puebla

The Battle of Puebla, despite Mexico’s eventual war loss, is revered as a symbol of heroism and nationalism. It remains a poignant reminder of Mexico’s triumphant stand against European imperialism.

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