What is Cinco de Mayo?
Cinco de Mayo, Spanish for “fifth of May”, is a celebration held on May 5th each year to commemorate the unlikely victory of the Mexican army over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. In the state of Puebla, the holiday is called El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (The Day of the Battle of Puebla).
Events Leading to the Battle of Puebla
Cinco de Mayo has its roots in the French occupation of Mexico, which took place in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the Mexican Civil War of 1858, and the 1860 Reform Wars. These wars left the Mexican Treasury nearly bankrupt. On July 17, 1861, Mexican President Benito Juárez issued a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand reimbursement. Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew, but France, at the time ruled by Napoleon III, decided to use the opportunity to establish a Latin empire in Mexico that would favor French interests, the Second Mexican Empire.
Late in 1861, a well-armed French fleet stormed Veracruz, landing a large French force and driving President Juárez and his government into retreat. Moving on from Veracruz towards Mexico City, the French army encountered heavy resistance from the Mexicans close to Puebla, at the Mexican forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. The 8,000-strong French army attacked the much smaller and poorly equipped Mexican army of 4,500. Yet, on May 5, 1862, the Mexicans managed to decisively crush the French army.
The victory represented a significant morale boost to the Mexican army and the Mexican population. Although it may not have been a major strategic win in the overall war against the French, Zaragoza’s success at Puebla represented a great symbolic victory for the Mexican government and bolstered the resistance movement. The Puebla victory symbolized unity and pride and helped establish a much-needed sense of national unity and patriotism.
Events After the Battle
The Mexican victory was short-lived. A year later, 30,000 French troops defeated the Mexican army, captured Mexico City and installed Emperor Maximilian I as the Ruler of Mexico. However, the French victory was also short-lived, lasting only three years, from 1864 to 1867. By 1865, with the American Civil War now over, the U.S. provided military assistance to Mexico to remove the French from power. Upon the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War, Napoleon III, facing a persistently tenacious Mexican guerilla resistance, the threat of war with Prussia, and the prospect of a military conflict with the United States, began withdrawing from Mexico in 1866. The Mexicans recaptured Mexico City, and Maximilian I was apprehended and executed, along with his Mexican generals Miramón and Mejía, in the Cerro de las Campanas, Querétaro. On June 5, 1867, Benito Juarez finally entered Mexico City where he installed a legitimate government and reorganized his administration.
Significance of These Events
Since the Battle of Puebla, and the support of a proven United States military, no country in North America has subsequently been invaded by any other European military force.
Cinco de Mayo is Not Mexico’s Independence Day
Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day, the most important national patriotic holiday in Mexico which is celebrated on September 16th each year.
Grito de Dolores
Grito de Dolores (“Shout of Dolores”), was shouted from the small town of Dolores, near Guanajuato in Mexico, on September 16, 1810. It is the event that marks the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence. The “grito” was the pronunciamiento of the Mexican War of Independence by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest. Since October 1825, the anniversary of the event is celebrated as Mexican Independence Day.
Mexico’s Actual Day of Independence was September 28th
Hidalgo and several criollos were involved in a planned revolt against the Spanish colonial government, when several plotters were killed. Fearing his arrest, Hidalgo commanded his brother Mauricio, as well as Ignacio Allende and Mariano Abasolo to go with a number of other armed men to demand the release of pro-independence inmates. They managed to set eighty free.
Around 6:00 am on September 16, 1810, Hidalgo ordered the church bells to be rung and gathered his congregation. Flanked by Allende and Juan Aldama, he addressed the people in front of his church, encouraging them to revolt. The Siege of Guanajuato, the first major engagement of the insurgency, occurred 4 days later.
Mexico’s independence would not be effectively declared from Spain in the Declaration of Independence of the Mexican Empire until September 28, 1821, after a decade of war.
Other Interesting Notes About Cinco de Mayo
Public memory of the Cinco de Mayo was socially, and deliberately, constructed during the American Civil War by Latinos responding to events and changes around them,” says historian David E. Hayes-Bautista. “The Cinco de Mayo is not, in its origins, a Mexican holiday at all but rather an American one, created by Latinos in California in the middle of the 19th century.” The key events were taking place in Mexico in response to a French invasion.