Cinco de Mayo is often confused for Mexican Independence Day, but could not be farther from the truth. Its full name is “La Batalla del Cinco de Mayo” or “The Battle of May 5th“, and it’s a day when many people take the chance to whip out their Frida Kahlo’s t-shirts, donkey piñatas, fake moustaches, big sombreros, and chug down a few Margaritas and bottles of Tequila.
In reality, Cinco de Mayo is just the anniversary of the small, but very significant battle for Puebla, the fourth largest state in the country with a million and a half habitants, located two and a half hours south east from Mexico City.
Puebla’s capital, also called Puebla, is one of the most important colonial cities in Mexico. Aside from being known for its excellent culinary scene – providing us with many famous dishes such as Mole, Cemitas, Chiles en Nogada, Chalupas, Arab Tacos, and lots of Mexican traditional candy – it also holds a very strategic geographical position. Puebla is located right on the march into Mexico City, just south of the two volcanoes that guard the capital.
What really happened on May 5th?
This battle occurred in 1862, more than 50 years after Independence from Spain. It was one year after President Benito Juarez decided Mexico would stop paying its external debt its European creditors. In this era, Britain and Spain negotiated a peaceful resolution to this outcome did not represent a problem. On the other hand Napoleon III, the then ruler of France, decided to send his imperial army to Mexico to claim its debt.
It was at Puebla that the Mexican military defeated France – an unlikely upset for the recently independent country against an imperial power. The unlikely military victory became a symbol of Mexican resistance, even if one year later the French succeeded in their second attempt to invade, , established a Monarchy with the Austrian archduke Maximilian as the Emperor of Second Empire of Mexico
Do we celebrate in Mexico?
In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is not a national Holiday and it’s mostly remembered only in the state where the battle took place, Puebla, and its surroundings. There they throw a parade in which the army and even the Mayor participate, along with people in costumes and battle reenactments that take place out in the streets. Once festivities are over, schools close down so kids get to go back home and call it a day.
Meanwhile in the rest of the country the date is just a minor holiday with nothing out of the ordinary happening, NOTHING! And so most offices, workplaces and schools would function with normality and will open usual hours.
Why is it such a big deal in the U.S.?
In 1862 in the United States was fighting its own civil war. Napoleon III had expressed possible interest in assisting the Confederate forces against the Union. When the improbable Mexican victory occurred against his troops, Latino communities took it as an achievement and started celebrating it throughout the country, particularly in California.
Some historians believe that the French defeat in Mexico prevented Napoleon III from supporting the Confederate forces.
And so the festivity became relevant for the Mexican American communities and slowly turned the date into a celebration of traditions, and a day to honour ethnicity and latino heritage. Outside of Mexico, the city of Los Angeles has the second largest population of Mexicans in the world, and May 5th inevitably became one of the most important celebrations.
Eventually White Americans joined the festivities and the date turned into a day for partying and drinking margaritas, making it a very profitable day for places like Mexican restaurants and latino themed bars. But it could also become a great excuse to try to get to have a deeper knowledge of Latin roots and maybe even understand the shared history between Mexico and the United States.
This is a blog post inspired on an article I wrote for Que Pasa Food Blog, you can read it here.