Every year on May 5, we prep the menu. It usually looks something like this: tacos, your friends really good salsa recipe, your sister's epic guac, a few options for margaritas, enchiladas if you are feeling adventurous, and perhaps a tres leches cake to top it all off. You eat like a king, but at the end of the day, besides an excuse to get together with friends and eat really good food, do you really know why you are celebrating Cinco de Mayo or what happened that caused us to celebrate it in the first place? If you do, kudos to you. If you don't, we're here for you. Here are 7 things you may not know about Cinco de Mayo that will help you understand, and hopefully appreciate more fully, the celebrations behind this Mexican holiday.
1. Cinco de Mayo is NOT Mexican Independence Day. A common misnomer is that we are celebrating Mexico's Independence Day. We're here to tell you we are not. Instead, we are celebrating the date that the Mexican army claimed victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War, which happened on May 5, 1862. Cinco de Mayo celebrates a SINGLE battle.
2. So how did this battle happen in the first place? Well, in 1861, a lawyer named Benito Juárez was elected President of Mexico. He was a member of the indigenous Zapotec tribe. At this point in time, Mexico was in financial ruin and as a result, the newly coined president had to default on a bunch of loans to European governments. As you can imagine, these European countries were not happy. So, as a result, Spain, France, and Britain sent naval forces to Veracruz, Mexico. Spain and Britain negotiated and left happy. France on the other hand, ruled by Napolean III (not to be confused with his historic uncle, Napolean Bonaparte) decided they'd rather have an empire on Mexican Territory. They thought it was a good time to establish a French outpost in the Americas as a replacement for the French-controlled land lost during the Louisiana purchase. They sent a large fleet to Veracruz later in 1861 and President Juárez and his government retreated.
3. The Battle of Puebla is the ultimate underdog story. France enlisted 6000 soldiers under the command of General Charles Latrille de Lorencez to attack the small town Puebla de Los Angeles in east-central Mexico. Juárez, who had retreated north, put together a ragtag army of 2000 men and sent them to the Puebla. While the French army was well-armed, the Mexican army was poorly supplied and clearly outnumbered. Lead by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza, they did what they could to fortify the town and waited for the French to come.
4. The Battle of Puebla was a relatively short battle. The French arrived the morning of May 5, 1862, and by early evening, much to everyone's surprise, the French were retreating. They had lost over 500 men while the Mexican forces had only lost 100.
5. While the Battle of Puebla wasn't necessarily a strategic win or a battle that cemented Mexican Independence, it was a battle that bolstered morale among the Mexican people and fueled the resistance.
6. Cinco de Mayo is a relatively small holiday in Mexico and is primarily observed in the state of Puebla. In the US, however, over the years it has become a commemoration of Mexican culture and heritage. Some traditions include military parades and recreations of the Battle of Puebla. Some of the largest celebrations are held in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.
7. Cinco de Mayo became popular in the US during the 1960s because Chicano activists raised awareness of the holiday, especially in California. It then gathered even more popularity in the 1980s.
In need of a few ways to celebrate? We're here to help!