Sunday, May 4, 2014

What Are We Celebrating on Cinco De Mayo?

Cinco De Mayo, a holiday often thought of by those outside of Mexico as Mexican Independence Day, is actually celebrated in remembrance of the Battle of Puebla, fought in 1862.


Prior to the Battle of Puebla, Mexico was governed by President Benito Juárez.  The country was in financial ruin, and in 1861 was forced to default on its debts held by European governments.  As a response to the default, French, British and Spanish naval forces landed in Veracruz, Mexico, demanding reimbursement.  After negotiations Britain and Spain withdrew from Mexico, but France, ruled by Napoleon III, saw Mexico’s dire financial straits as an opportunity for the French to make Mexico their dependent territory.
In late 1861 a French fleet invaded Veracruz.  President Juárez and his government went in to retreat.  6,000 French troops, under the command of General Charles Latrille de Lorencez, attacked the small town of Puebla de Los Angeles.  In response, Juárez mustered an army of indigenous Mexican and mixed-ancestry men into a ragtag force numbering about 2,000.  Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza was placed in command and led the men to Puebla.  Although outnumbered and poorly supplied, Zaragoza’s men won the battle, and on May 5, 1862 Lorencez withdrew his troops.  The French lost 500 soldiers in the battle, while less than 100 Mexican troops lost their lives. 

The Battle of Puebla, while not considered a major strategic victory in the war against the French, became a symbolic representation of the Mexican government and its resistance movement.  Six years later, in 1868, the war ended and France withdrew.  The same year, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, the emperor of Mexico installed by Napoleon, was captured and executed by Juarez’s forces.  During his six-year reign, Maximilian had championed many of Juarez’s liberal reforms--including land reform; cancelling the debts of peasants; abolishing child labor; and restoring communal property. These reforms made the emperor unpopular with the Mexican aristocracy who did not support his cause against Juarez’s guerilla army and, after his death, created a contradictory historical legacy.

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is primarily observed in the city of Puebla with military parades, recreations of the battle, and other festive events.  To the rest of Mexico, May 5th is considered the same as any other day and not a holiday. In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is widely interpreted as a celebration of Mexican-American culture and heritage. It is often celebrated with parades, parties, Mexican folk dancing, traditional Mexican food, and mariachi music.  A&E Television Networks (2014)

Editor's Note:  For History databases, books, internet links and more, see the History Subject Guide from TWU Libraries. Johnathan Wilson, History Subject Librarian, is available to assist you with your History research.  Reach him at or 940-898-3739.

~Jeanette Janes

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