Cinco de Mayo
by Jo Elizabeth Pinto
Cinco de Mayo–literally meaning "fifth of May"–is a Mexican holiday celebrated in parts of the United States with food and fun. but do you really know what you’re celebrating? The day isn’t just an excuse to have a burrito and a margarita or two, and it isn’t a celebration of Mexican independence, as many people think.
Mexican Independence Day is actually celebrated on September 16. It was on that day in 1810 that Father Miguel Hidalgo urged his flock to take up arms with him against Spanish tyranny from his pulpit in the village of Dolores. His speech is still remembered today as "El Grito de Dolores" or "The Cry of Dolores."
Cinco de Mayo, on the other hand, commemorates the Battle of Puebla, which took place against the French in 1862. It was one of the few Mexican victories as France tried to penetrate Mexico, but it wasn’t the first time France had attacked. In 1838 and 1839, attempting to collect on debts incurred in Mexico’s war for independence against Spain, France had occupied the city of Veracruz in what was known as the Pastry War.
In 1861, France again sent a massive army to Mexico. As was often the case, the Old World army was better trained and more well equipped than its new World counterpart. The Mexicans made a valiant stand at Puebla where, against all odds, they won a stunning victory on May 5, 1862.
The triumph was short-lived. The French army regrouped and rolled on, eventually taking Mexico City. In 1864, the French crowned Maximilian of Austrea, a young nobleman who barely spoke Spanish, as emperor of Mexico. Maximilian tried to rule decently, but most Mexicans rejected him because he was a foreigner. He was executed in 1867 by forces loyal to President Benito Juarez.
During the Battle of Puebla, a young officer named Porfirio Diaz distinguished himself. Diaz rapidly rose through the military ranks as an officer, then became a politician. He aided in the fight against Maximilian and eventually took the Presidency, ruling as a dictator for thirty-five years, till he was deposed by the Mexican Revolution in 1911.
Still, the euphoria and national pride of the impressive victory against the French army at Puebla in 1862 lived on in the hearts of Mexicans, and the day was commemorated every year.
Eventually, Cinco de Mayo came to be celebrated more by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the United States than it did in Mexico, other than in Puebla, where the battle actually happened. The largest Cinco de Mayo party in the world takes place every year in Los Angeles, California, where people celebrate “Festival de Fiesta Broadway” on May fifth or the closest Sunday. It’s a large, raucous party with parades, food, dancing, and music. Hundreds of thousands attend annually. It’s even bigger than the festivities in Puebla.
Cinco de Mayo has come to be more about celebrating the Mexican way of life these days than remembering a battle that occurred over 150 years ago. In U.S. cities where there are large Mexican populations, people dance to mariachi bands and drink coronas. They eat nachos and wear sombreros. Some people refer to Cinco de Mayo as the Mexican St. Patrick’s Day.