I’m almost embarrassed to say this, but until a few days ago, I didn’t know the reason why we celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the United States. I remember a friend telling me many years ago that it has to do with the battle at Puebla near Mexico City, but that’s all she could tell me and I never pursued a deeper explanation.
The one thing I was sure of was that Cinco de Mayo is not the celebration of Mexican Independence day, which is on September 16th. That’s all I knew. Ever since my ten-second conversation with my friend about Cinco de Mayo, this question has been sitting at the back of my subconscious mind like a file waiting to be reopened and filled with the correct documents. This week I set out to learn some history and finally answer all the questions in my sad incomplete file. Here’s what I discovered through some online research in a nutshell.
“The battle at Puebla in 1862 happened at a violent and chaotic time in Mexico’s history. Mexico had finally gained independence from Spain in 1821 after a difficult and bloody struggle, and a number of internal political takeovers and wars, including the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the Mexican Civil War of 1858, had ruined the national economy.” [source: mexonline.com]
In other words, Mexico was in a huge debt. Mexico owed Spain, Great Britain, and France money but could not at the time repay that debt. President Benito Juarez convinced Spain and Britain that he would find a way to repay, but he needed some time to recover and repair his Country first. Napolean III, ruler of France at the time, was not convinced and proceeded with an order to attack and seize Mexican land as repayment. France’s Army General Lorencez came in through Veracruz, attacked at Puebla, and planned to head for Mexico City.
Cinco de Mayo marks a day in history (May 5th, 1862 to be exact) when thousands of Mexican troops, led by Army General Ignacio Zaragoza, defeated Lorencez and his army, which outnumbered the Mexican Army nearly two-fold. One year later however, Lorencez returned with a much larger and better equipped army. Mexico inevitably lost the second round of war, but General Zaragoza and his troops continued to fight. Mexico city was eventually taken over and ruled by Maximilian for another 4 years. Finally in the Summer of 1867, Mexico regained control of Mexico City and executed Maximilian.
So why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the United States? Well, some sources say that the battle at Puebla slowed the French army down and provided U.S. and Northern Mexico territories an opportunity to set up a much better equipped (and larger) Mexican army. The United States was in the middle of a civil war between its own states while all this was happening in Mexico, so both Countries were pretty much on their own. Mexico’s firstvictory (on May 5th) gave the entire Country a huge boost in confidence. The news of the victory gave all of Mexico the courage to continue the fight when the French army returned.
Some sources say the reason the U.S. began celebrating Cinco de Mayo is because of the sense of pride that Latinos living in the U.S. felt at the time of this battle. It became a symbol of Mexican resistance, pride, and courage because they stood up against a much stronger army and won when there was little hope. They were poorly prepared, but they fought with all their strength and might for the love of their heritage and Country.
Others say the battle at Puebla saved the United States because Napolean’s army was unable to move North quickly. Basically, Mexico bought the U.S. some time with their own fight. Had the French been given the opportunity to continue North, they could have aided the U.S. Confederacy which would have been no bueno for The United States Government. So, I guess if we think about it in that way, we should be grateful for Zaragoza and the first troops that fought at Puebla. Maybe the fate of the United States would have ended differently.