Many Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but how many actually know the history of the holiday?
Contrary to popular beliefCinco de Mayo does not mark the independence of Mexico, which is celebrated on September 16. Instead, it is meant to commemorate the Battle of Puebla, which pitted the Mexican and French armies in 1862.
In Mexico’s long and storied history, the Battle of Puebla is generally considered a fairly minor event. But his legacy lives on a century and a half later, especially in the United States.
Repel an empire
After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, other nations were reluctant to recognize the fledgling country’s autonomy. Over the following decades, Mexico lost much of its territory to the United States and entered a period of economic and political instability.
This was punctuated by a civil war in the late 1850s which resulted Benito JuarezMexico’s first indigenous president, taking power in 1861.
One of Juarez’s first acts was to cancel foreign loan repayments in an effort to protect Mexico’s struggling economy. This angered Britain, Spain and France and prompted them to send a joint expeditionary force to Mexico. However, Britain and Spain quickly withdrew when it became clear that French leader Napoleon III was more interested in overthrowing the new Mexican government.
The Battle of Puebla took place on May 5, 1862, when the Mexican army, led by General Commander Ignacio Zaragoza, repelled the attacks of the French army on the city of Pueblalocated about 70 miles southeast of Mexico City.
It was a small but inspiring victory for Mexico, and four days later, on May 9, 1862, Juárez declared Cinco de Mayo a national holiday.
Even though the French would eventually defeat the Mexican army and take control of the country under the short-lived Second Mexican Empirewhich lasted from 1864 to 1867, victory at the Battle of Puebla sent a powerful message to the rest of the world.
The Mexican army was outnumber two to one by seasoned French troops, Mexico has therefore proved to be a formidable adversary worthy of international respect. And the fact that the country was led by an indigenous president had a special symbolic meaning.
An unintended impact on US history?
The Battle of Puebla may also have had an unintended impact on the United States, which at the time was in the throes of its Civil War.
Sociologist David Hayes, author of “El Cinco de Mayo: an American traditionargued that by defeating the French at the Battle of Puebla, the Mexicans prevented the French army from continuing north toward the American border, where they likely would have aided the Confederacy. It is therefore possible that Mexico’s victory at the Battle of Puebla changed the course of American history.
The Battle of Puebla would have been celebrated in the state of California, which still had strong ties to Mexico; aligned with the Union, the citizens of the State viewed victory as a defense of freedom.
For nearly a century, few people in the United States celebrated Cinco de Mayo. But it reemerged as a major holiday in California in the mid-20th century, sparked by the growth chicano movement. The story of David versus Goliath aptly reflected the struggle for civil rights.
Companies are cashing in
The generalization marketing of Cinco de Mayo occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. Beer companies, in particular, targeted Mexican Americans, urging them to celebrate their heritage with Coronas, Bud Lights, and Dos Equis.
As more and more Americans — regardless of ethnicity — join in the festivities, few know what Cinco de Mayo commemorates. Investigation found that only 10% of Americans could describe the origins of the holiday.
Cinco de Mayo’s complicated legacy reminds us that the past is made meaningful in different ways by different people.
For Mexicans – especially those living outside the modern city of Puebla – the holiday is of minor importance, overshadowed by much larger national and religious holidays, such as Mexican Independence Day and the day of the Dead. However, re-enactments of the Battle of Puebla still take place in modern Puebla as well as the Peñon de los Baños neighborhood of Mexico City.
For many Mexican Americans, this day holds special significance as a time to celebrate their shared heritage. But given the rampant commercialization of the holiday, some Mexican Americans have expressed ambivalence about celebrating it.
And for Americans without Mexican ancestry, the holidays just seem like an excuse to drink margaritas.
Kirby Farahassistant professor of anthropology, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences