If you have ever wondered, what is Cinco de Mayo?—you’re not alone. The rich history behind this curious Mexican holiday might surprise you. Therefore, WeExpats has decided to write an article attempting to answer these two questions: what is Cinco de Mayo, and why do Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo
Answering the question of what is Cinco de Mayo may not be as easy as just stating the history of the holiday. We can, of course, begin with the origins of this particular holiday—however that won’t shed much light as to answering the question of why do Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
TIn exploring what is Cinco de Mayo, we can first touch base on the history of this curious holiday. The first point to mention is that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s independence day. September 16th is Mexican Independence Day. In case you are wondering what is Cinco de Mayo in Spanish, it means the 5th of May—which commemorates the Battle of Puebla.
Instead, Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Battle of Puebla, where the poblanos defeated the French Empire under Napoleon III’s. After the Reform War of the late 1850s—which was a Mexican civil war between those who believed in a separation of church and state and those who believed in a Catholic theocracy—Mexico was nearly bankrupted. Therefore, then Mexican President Benito Juarez ordered a two-year moratorium on repaying foreign debt.
Britain, Spain, and France sent an alliance of naval forces to Veracruz to demand payment. Napoleon III’s forces of 8,000 men landed in Veracruz in December of 1861, and after easily overpowering the city, they pushed deeper into Mexican territory.
Mexico was able to negotiate with Spain and Britain who pulled their armies from the invasion by April of 1862. However, Napoleon III used Mexico defaulting on their debt as a pretext and opportunity to engage in his military ambitions of forming an empire in Mexico that would favor France and its interests. Why do Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo Fort Loreto situated on the northern heights of Puebla.
Through a quirk of fate, though negotiations were taking place between France and Mexico, the two armies encountered each other while the French were actually retreating to the ocean. The Mexicans saw the French on the march and they felt threatened, thus they engaged the enemy. This occured just as negotiations were falling apart, so the French commander General Charles Lorencez instead fought back by taking the town of Orizaba.
Under the direction of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, the Mexicans fell back to Acultzingo Pass—where they were badly beaten in a skirmish—thus forcing their retreat to the heavily defended city of Puebla. This sets the stage for the famous battle that would take place on the 5th of May.
Puebla was a heavily fortified city, however, its greatest asset from a strategic position were two forts (Fort Loreto and Fort Guadalupe) on either side of the northern heights. In preparation for the coming attack, General Ignacio Zaragoza dug a trench between the two forts.
General Charles Lorencez was mistakenly under the impression that Puebla was supportive of the French—even to the point of believing that the Mexican garrison would be overrun by the support of the poblanos. Furthermore—against all his staff’s advice—Lorencez approached from the north where the two forts were located.
Lorencez had the numbers (his force numbered 6,500 against the Mexican 4,500) and he certainly had the equipment (the Mexican garrison was armed with outdated rifles and artillery—and the local Mexican conscripts were shockingly inadequately equipped), therefore he was feeling overconfident; a feeling which was only augmented by the complete defeat of the Mexican garrison at Acultzingo Pass.
Lorencez began their artillery bombardment too late in the day—just before noon when he sent in his first wave of infantry—which allowed the Mexicans to fight the day fully entrenched and healthy. Perhaps this was because he was low on artillery ammunition because, by the third wave of infantry, he had completely run out of ammunition. Therefore, Lorencez was forced to send the 3rd Wave and all his reserves in an unsupported attack.
The Mexicans, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, put forth a strong defense. They even managed a counterattack on the field between the two forts and the trench that they had dug. After the third French wave failed, Lorencez was forced to retreat. However, General Ignacio Zaragoza ordered his cavalry to slam into the retreating French forces.
To make matters worse for the French, Mexican soldiers concealed themselves along the road—famously hiding behind cacti as legend has it—in order to flank the French troops as the cavalry struck. The summer rains of Central Mexico fell early that day, at 15:00 hours, making the road treacherous and the retreat slow.
In the end, the French lost over five times as many soldiers as the Mexican garrison (462 French, 83 Mexicans). It was the first largescale battle that the French army had lost in 5 decades. It was hailed as a great victory at the time, though the coming year would see the French regroup, resupply, and ultimately conquer Mexico.
Perhaps we have answered the question of what is Cinco de Mayo. Though Cinco de Mayo is a holiday that is celebrated in Puebla, it’s hardly celebrated throughout Mexico. We have to continue our historical query to the next question: why do Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo. What is Cinco de Mayo? This is the official uniform of the indigenous conscripts from the Zacapoaxtlas tribe, facing one of the best trained and equipped army the world had ever seen.
To answer the question why do Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo, we must delve into a separate historical vein. In the United States, while the Battle of Puebla was taking place, the United States was in the midst of the Civil War—and in the spring of 1862, neither side seemed victorious.
As previously stated, Napoleon III was highly interested in establishing a French colony in the Americas. One of his motivations for doing so were to purchase inexpensive goods from the American South and export them to Europe. As we all know, the inexpensive prices set by the American South depended on the free labor born from slavery.
At the time, a naval blockade of the South by the Union had made goods like American cotton incredibly rare and expensive in Europe. Setting up trade routes through Mexico seemed like a very lucrative opportunity. Napoleon III longed to exchange French artillery for Southern cotton and sell them in Europe—and the South eagerly courted France’s patronage.
In the spring of 1862—at the time of the Battle of Puebla—the Confederacy had won a steady string of impressive victories over the Union. Supporting the Confederacy’s independence seemed a solid investment for France. Furthermore, French artillery could have tipped the scale in favor of the Confederacy. Some historians contend that had the French conquered Mexico in 1862, they could have established a French, oligarchal, slave state stretching from Guatemala to the Mason-Dixon line.
Because the French were forced to retreat after the Battle of Puebla, this delayed the conquest of Mexico until the following year. When they returned in the spring of 1863, the Union had won several victories signaling the ultimate demise of the South. The investment no longer seemed as solid. Most recognize that the new artillery in 1863 would have made little difference in the ultimate outcome of the war.
The critical delay of the Battle of Puebla was not lost on Mexicans in the United States. Mexico has always been adamantly anti-slavery. One of the first laws enacted by Mexico after it gained its independence from Spain was to abolish slavery. Furthermore, the Union had guaranteed Mexicans equal rights under the law, and the Confederacy threatened to diminish those rights. Many Mexicans feared that an independent South would carry with it the threat of slavery in the West. Therefore, many Mexican-Americans—especially in the West—sided with the Union.
Nowhere were Mexican-Americans more ardent supporters of the Union than in California where Mexicans had flocked during the Gold Rush. The political undertones of the Battle of Puebla were not lost on the Mexican-Americans in California, and they hailed Cinco de Mayo as a great victory. In fact, historians have found that the first Cinco de Mayo celebrations were in 1862—the year of the Battle of Puebla—and that those celebrations have continued uninterrupted in Los Angeles every year since.
In 1862, Cinco de Mayo was a rallying call for Mexican-Americans in California and Nevada who promptly formed Juntas Patrióticas (meaning “Patriotic Assemblies” in Spanish). In California alone, 14,000 members in 129 different locations would meet monthly, where passionate speeches were given hailing General Zaragoza as a hero and denouncing the Confederacy.
By 1863, the Patriotic Assemblies were an integral part of Mexican-American society. These Juntas Patrióticas paid dues—some reaching as high as $100—all funds were allocated to support the war effort on both sides of the border; the Union in the United States, and toppling the French state in Mexico. The causes were so intertwined in the minds of Mexican-Americans in California, that some Cinco de Mayo parades featured Hispanics wearing Union uniforms, carrying both nation’s flags, and singing both The Star Spangled Banner in English and When Johnny Comes Marching Home in Spanish. Why do Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo Famous Chicano activist Cesar Chavez visiting a college campus in 1974.
As the years passed, Cinco de Mayo celebrations would evolve in Chicano (a compound of “chico” + “Mexicano” meaning “little Mexican” in Spanish) communities as a way to demonstrate pride in their shared Mexican heritage—even expanding to include some Latino communities from other nationalities.
It was also a rallying point for Chicanos and to speak out against the systemic oppression that they faced, such as lynchings, injustice in the courts, the “Greaser Act”, Foreign Miners Tax, land theft, and for Chicano women: denial of suffrage. In other words, the typical life of a minority in the late 19th Century. Cinco de Mayo was a way for people to band together, celebrate, and demonstrate for almost 100 years before the rise of the Chicano movement.
Thus we are now equipped to return to the first question of what is Cinco de Mayo? What we find is that with the rise of the Chicano movement in the 1940s—and throughout its peak in the 1960s—activists strengthened cultural ties as a way to establish a unified identity necessary for social activism. Naturally, they looked to the unique celebration of Cinco de Mayo as a unifying call in their struggle for Civil Rights. They protested farm worker’s rights, restoration of land grants, voting rights and other political rights, enhanced education, and an end to negative stereotyping of Latinos in the media and beyond. It wasn’t until the Chicano movement that this West-coast-based celebration became a national celebration—though to this day it is not a federal holiday.
As the celebration grew, white people began to join in the holiday—because let’s face it, Mexicans throw a good party. As whites joined in, large corporations would inevitably vie for their slice of the pie. Much like St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo has become an excuse to drink Mexican beers, barbecue carne asada, and partake in Mexican stereotypes.
Liquor industries pumped massive amounts of money into marketing campaigns, so much so that in 2014, CNN reported that Cinco de Mayo was the largest non-winter holiday for alcohol consumption—overtaking such Dionysian celebrations as 4th of July, Halloween, and St. Patrick’s Day.
As we have seen, Cinco de Mayo celebrations have largely stripped of their meaning in order to blow off steam from the corporate grind and enjoy good food. However, the rich history, the traditions that have grown on both sides of the border, and the opportunity for Chicano and Latino activism have made Cinco de Mayo so much more than your typical holiday.
As we find through our historical exploration, is that the answer to the questions what is Cinco de Mayo and why do Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo is the same: because it’s an American holiday.
The Expat Resource Center is your go to spot for everything from guides to articles about your favorite destinations.
Get instant worldwide insurance quotes to your inbox!Get Quote Now
For several years, Rafael has been crafting articles to help expats and nomads in their journey abroad. He takes great pride in meticulously researching the ins-and-outs of bureaucratic processes in different countries around the world. A digital nomad for almost a decade, Rafael also enjoys exploring cultural phenomena in his articles to better help expats and nomads assimilate. If you have any questions or issues with the content of an article, he’s the one to contact for further information.