Cinco de Mayo—or the fifth of May—commemorates the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War (1861-1867). A relatively minor holiday in Mexico, in the United States Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in areas with large Mexican-American populations. Cinco de Mayo traditions include parades, mariachi music performances and street festivals in cities and towns across Mexico and the United States.
In 1861 the liberal Mexican Benito Juárez (1806-1872) became president of a country in financial ruin, and he was forced to default on his debts to European governments. In response, France, Britain and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand reimbursement. Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew, but France, ruled by Napoleon III (1808-1873), decided to use the opportunity to carve a dependent empire out of Mexican territory. Late in 1861, a well-armed French fleet stormed Veracruz, landing a large French force and driving President Juárez and his government into retreat.
Certain that success would come swiftly, 6,000 French Troops under General Charles Latrille de Lorencez (1814-1892) set out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico. From his new headquarters in the north, Juárez rounded up a rag-tag force of 2,000 loyal men—many of them either indigenous Mexicans or of mixed ancestry—and sent them to Puebla. Led by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza (1829-1862), the vastly outnumbered and poorly supplied Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the French assault. On May 5, 1862, Lorencez drew his army, well provisioned and supported by heavy artillery, before the city of Puebla and led an assault from the north. The battle lasted from daybreak to early evening, and when the French finally retreated they had lost nearly 500 soldiers. Fewer than 100 Mexicans had been killed in the clash.
Within Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is primarily observed in the state of Puebla, where Zaragoza’s unlikely triumph occurred, although other parts of the country also take part in the celebration. Traditions include military parades, recreations of the Battle of Puebla and other festive events. For many Mexicans, however, May 5 is a day like any other: It is not a federal holiday, so offices, banks and stores remain open.
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is widely interpreted as a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in areas with substantial Mexican-American populations. Chicano activists raised awareness of the holiday in the 1960s, in part because they identified with the victory of indigenous Mexicans over European invaders during the Battle of Puebla. Today, revelers mark the occasion with parades, parties, mariachi music, Mexican folk dancing and traditional foods such as tacos and mole poblano. Some of the largest festivals are held in Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.
However you decide to go about celebrating Cinco de Mayo, make sure you have fun!