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The History of Cinco de Mayo and Why it’s Celebrated in the U.S.

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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Photo Credit: Thinkstock

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73 comments

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8:14AM PDT on Jul 24, 2014

I never knew the reason for Cinco de Mayo, so thanks for the information!!

8:01AM PDT on May 9, 2014

Sue gracias ?? ! ??

Press 1 for English , Press 2 for Spanish

De Nada, por nada, no es nada

7:17AM PDT on May 9, 2014

gracias

1:39PM PDT on May 8, 2014

Thank you !! :)

1:06AM PDT on May 8, 2014

I lived in Texas during the 80s and early 90s, and Cinco de Mayo was HUGE. I was amazed to see it follow me home to New York (thank you, Corona!) a few years later, but I was really happy to have good Mexican restaurants show up a few years after that. My friends were happiest of all to no longer hear me ask them to bring me a case of Rotel tomatoes and a big bag of poblanos when visiting!

10:39AM PDT on May 7, 2014

We here in San Antonio enjoy any celebration of our diverse cultures. It's amazing how downtown celebrations have plenty to offer families and friends!

9:11AM PDT on May 7, 2014

Kristina M. Mexico is a beautiful place to visit !
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Especially Ciudad Juarez at night - you get to read about the murders by the drug lords.

A major earth-moving corp has a plant in Monterrey and when the American workers want to drive home they have to leave in caravans and NO STOPPING - the BANDITS will rob and kill you.

8:24AM PDT on May 7, 2014

Mexico is a beautiful place to visit !

3:26AM PDT on May 7, 2014

ty

6:35PM PDT on May 6, 2014

any day is good for a party

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Lindsay Spangler Lindsay Spangler is a Web Editor and Producer for Care2 Causes. A recent UCLA graduate, she lives in... more
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