The History of Cinco de Mayo and Why it’s Celebrated in the U.S.
It’s Cinco de Mayo! Do you know what is being celebrated on this day?
Cinco de Mayo (English translation: the fifth of May) is annually observed on May 5, the anniversary of a victory in 1862 in the Mexican fight for independence from French forces. It is a festival of Mexican pride and heritage in the United States.
It was Napoleon the Third of France who decided to invade Mexico with his army in 1862. The French army was the most famous in the world, while the Mexican army had only ill-trained soldiers, who were poor and barely had enough to eat. Nevertheless, on May 5, 1862, in the city of Puebla, those Mexican soldiers fought against the much stronger French army and won.
That sounds great, right? But the reality is that Mexican forces defeated the invading French forces on May 5, 1862, only to be defeated by the French army who came back on May 6, 1862, and overcame the Mexican forces; the victory was short-lived.
With his forces defeated, President Benito Juarez was forced to go into hiding. The French held control over Mexico for the next five years, installing Maximiliano and Carlota, two Austrians, as the leaders of the country. It wasn’t until 1867 that Benito Juarez took control of his country again.
So Cinco de Mayo celebrates just one day in which the Mexican army triumphed over the French army. Why is it so popular?
The answer is that it really isn’t, at least not in Mexico. The Mexican Day of Independence is celebrated on September 16, a far more significant date.
In 1862, at the time the Battle of Puebla took place, the United States was engaged in its Civil War. The French presence in Mexico was a strategic move; by gaining a toehold in Mexico, the French could then support the Confederate Army. The defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla helped to stave off the French while the U.S. Union forces made advances.
So Cinco de Mayo can be seen as a turning point in the U.S. Civil War. Cinco de Mayo was first celebrated in the United States in Southern California in 1863 as a show of solidarity with Mexico against French rule.
Celebrations continued on a yearly basis, and by the 1930s it was seen as an opportunity to celebrate Mexican identity, promote ethnic consciousness and build community solidarity. In the 1950s and 60s Mexican-American youths appropriated the holiday and it gained a bi-national flavor, and its celebration was used as a way to build Mexican-American pride.
Today, Cinco de Mayo has become a holiday to celebrate the culture, achievements and experiences of people with a Mexican background, who live in the United States. There is a large commercial element to the day, with businesses promoting Mexican services and goods, particularly food, drinks and music. Other aspects of the day center around traditional symbols of Mexican life, such as the Virgin de Guadalupe, and Mexican-Americans who have achieved fame, fortune and influence in the United States.
The biggest Cinco de Mayo celebrations are in cities such as Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, San Antonio, Sacramento, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver and El Paso. In these cities, a large proportion of the population has Mexican origins.
So now you know: Cinco de Mayo is more about celebrating Mexican culture than about celebrating Mexican history. And most Mexicans in Mexico don’t actually celebrate this day.
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