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  • Writer's pictureJamiese Hancy

💃🏽 The Surprising History of Mexico's Cinco de Mayo

The Battle of Puebla: The Origins of Cinco de Mayo

Painting depicting the 05 May 1862 Battle of Puebla, where Mexican forces defeated the French army.

🗡️ Cinco de Mayo Celebrates the Battle of Puebla. [1]

Cinco de Mayo is a widely celebrated holiday, but many people are unaware of its true historical origins. On the 5th of May, 1862, in the Batalla de Puebla (Battle of Puebla), 4,000 poorly-equipped Mexican Army troops led by General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated 6,000 soldiers of the powerful Second French Empire led by General Charles de Lorencez.

This unexpected victory was a major morale boost for the Mexican people. It galvanized resistance against the European invaders, who six years later grew weary of the fight and withdrew.

Puebla de Los Ángeles, the site of General Zaragoza’s historic victory, was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in his honor. Sadly, this courageous hero didn't live to see the French withdraw from his country. General Zaragoza died of typhoid fever at age 33 just four months after the Battle of Puebla.

Today, Mexicans celebrate the anniversary of this battle as Cinco de Mayo. The city of Puebla marks the event with dramatic battle reenactments and lively fiestas which feature Mariachi bands, piñatas, festive cuisine and beverages, and all sorts of activities that celebrate Mexican culture and heritage.

The Battle of Puebla was part of the larger Mexican-French War, which began in 1861 when the Mexican government defaulted on debt payments to European nations. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent military forces to Veracruz to demand repayment. Britain and Spain quickly negotiated settlements, but France, under the leadership of Napoleon III, had an ulterior motive in sailing to Veracruz – to invade and conquer Mexico.

The French army, which was considered to be one of the most formidable military forces in the world at the time, marched toward Mexico City. However, half-way there, they encountered unexpected resistance from General Ignacio Zaragoza’s forces near the city of Puebla. Despite being outnumbered, the Mexican Army was able to defeat the French Army in the ensuing battle, delivering a significant blow to Napoleon's ambitions.

While the Battle of Puebla was ultimately a temporary setback for the French, it became a symbol of Mexican resistance and resilience. Cinco de Mayo commemorates this historic victory as a symbol of Mexican pride and resilience in the face of adversity.

Why Cinco de Mayo is Not Mexico's Independence Day

A vibrant display of Mexican cultural pride with traditional Mexican cuisine, maracas, and flags.

🌎 Show Your Pride in Mexico on Cinco de Mayo! [2]

Many people in the United States mistakenly assume that Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexico's independence. Mexico's actual Independence Day, however, is September 16th. On that day in 1810, Miguel Hidalgo declared independence from "bad government" in the town of Dolores, Guanajuato.

This event, known as Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores) is commemorated every year on September 16th as Mexico's Independence Day. This story didn’t end well for Hidalgo, though. The Spanish authorities eventually captured and executed him by firing squad on July 31, 1811.

The confusion as to the significance of the Cinco de Mayo holiday likely stems from the fact that the observance of Cinco de Mayo in the US has evolved from a commemoration of the Batalla de Puebla to become widely observed as a celebration of Mexican-American culture and heritage.

However, it's important to understand the true historical significance of the holiday and not confuse it with another historical milestone, Mexico's Independence Day, whose Grito de Dolores occurred over 50 years prior to Cinco de Mayo’s Batalla de Puebla.

How Cinco de Mayo Came To Be Celebrated in US, too

Mexican-Americans in traditional costumes celebrate Cinco de Mayo on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

🗽 Cinco de Mayo Is Heartily Celebrated in the US. [3]

The origins of Cinco de Mayo's prominence in the US can be traced back to the 1860s when the American public sympathized with Mexico's struggle against French occupation. As Mexican-American communities expanded in the late 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in regions with large Mexican-American populations such as California and the Southwest, so did the people’s desire to preserve and celebrate their cultural heritage.

In 1933, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the "Good Neighbor Policy" to foster better relations with Latin American countries. This raised awareness of the holiday in America even further.

The 1960s Chicano Rights movement, which galvanized Mexican-American activists during the American Civil Rights movement, vigorously embraced Cinco de Mayo. Localities with strong Mexican communities held parades in the 1960s and 70s that took advantage of the holiday to salute their cultural heritage.

In the years and decades that followed, Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the US began to take on a more commercial and festive nature with the emergence of more extravagant parades, parties, fiestas, piñatas, musical events, and widespread consumption of Mexican food and beverages, such as tacos, enchiladas, chili peppers, avocados, guacamole, margaritas, tequila, and cerveza (beer).

Mole de poblano is the unofficial traditional food of Cinco de Mayo. Legend has it that a convent of nuns invented the reddish-brown sauce in the 1600s. The concoction is a complex mix that includes chilis, spices, seeds, nuts, and a touch of chocolate.

The largest annual Cinco de Mayo celebration in the US is probably the one that’s held in Los Angeles. Major celebrations also occur in Albuquerque, Austin, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, and Washington, DC.

The Mexican breed of dogs named for the state of Chihuahua race against each other in Washington DC's Running of the Chihuahuas. This event, which includes a costume contest, donates entry fees to the Rural Dog Rescue organization.

Today, Cinco de Mayo’s transformation from its roots as a celebration of a Mexican military victory into a modern celebration of Mexican-American identity, heritage, and contributions to American society reflects the growing influence and integration of Mexican-American culture into the broader American fabric.

The holiday has become a vibrant expression of the rich cultural exchange between the US and Mexico and a way for people of all backgrounds to appreciate and engage with Mexican-American culture. In this way, Cinco de Mayo fosters cultural diversity, cross-cultural understanding, and strong bonds between the two nations.

The Modern Significance of Cinco de Mayo

Exuberant performers in traditional Mexican costumes dance in a street in Cork, Ireland, in 2018.

💃🏽 Cinco de Mayo Fiestas Renew Community Spirit. [4]

Cinco de Mayo holds a unique place in the hearts of Mexicans as a symbol of the nation’s pride and resilience. The holiday highlights the country's determination in the face of adversity. Today, Cinco de Mayo is observed not only in Mexico and the US, but also by people of Mexican descent around the world and others who wish to honor Mexican culture and heritage.

The modern significance of Cinco de Mayo extends beyond the historical event itself. It’s evolved into a celebration of Mexican identity, traditions, and community. Cinco de Mayo provides opportunities to showcase the richness and diversity of Mexican culture and appreciate and honor Mexico’s rich traditions, cuisine, music, and art.

Cinco de Mayo festivities offer a vibrant expression of Mexican pride, and unity. Authentic Cinco de Mayo celebrations often feature lively mariachi music and folk dances like the Jarabe Tapatío (Mexican Hat Dance).

While Mariachi music is a normal part of everyday life in much of Mexico, on Cinco de Mayo, you're sure to see these musicians dressed in sombreros and embroidered traje de charro suits at restaurants and parades. Popular Cinco de Mayo apparel also includes brightly-colored skirts, traditional Tehuana dresses, and embroidered Puebla dresses.

Beyond the festivities, Cinco de Mayo holds a particularly deep meaning for people of indigenous Mexican ethnicity. This holiday serves to remind us of their ongoing struggles for self-determination and the importance of standing up against oppression – values which were held deeply by the original Cinco de Mayo patriots and which continue to resonate today with oppressed peoples of all backgrounds.

Honoring History of Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Heritage

Colorful indigenous Mexican Concheros dancers honor the rich heritage of ancient Mexican culture.

🏹 Cinco de Mayo Honors Indigenous Mexican Tribes. [5]

Cinco de Mayo presents us with an opportunity to learn more about Mexico's history and the ongoing contributions of both ancient and modern Mexicans to the cultural fabric of North America. Embracing this cultural exchange is a meaningful way to celebrate the holiday.

The earliest evidence of human habitation in Mexico discovered so far is a 21,000 BCE settlement in central Mexico that includes campfire remains and stone tools. Indigenous peoples of Mexico began to selectively breed maize plants around 8,000 BCE and began intensive maize farming between 1800 and 1500 BCE. Evidence shows that intensive pottery creation began in the meantime by 2,300 BCE.

Between 1800 and 300 BCE, complex cultures began to form. Many matured into advanced Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Olmec, Izapa, Teotihuacan, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Huastec, Purépecha, Totonac, and Toltec. This evolutionary process culminated with the emergence of the Aztec civilization, whose people flourished for nearly 4,000 years before their unfortunate first contact with Hernán Cortés and his Spanish conquistadors in February, 1519.

The Aztec Empire, led by Moctezuma II, had established dominance over central Mexico through military conquest and intricate political alliances. A combination of factors including palace intrigue, the lethal impact of European diseases, superior weaponry and technology, and strategic alliances with rival indigenous groups contributed to Cortés’s subsequent conquest of the Aztec Empire and the downfall of Aztec Civilization.

The Spanish rulers of Mexico enslaved many native Aztecs; they replaced the Aztec religion that worshiped Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, and other lesser deities with Christianity; they tore down and replaced most Aztec architecture with Spanish architecture; they replaced the Aztec monarchy with that of their own; and they installed Spanish as the official language of Mexico.

Spanish dominance over all Mesoamerican civilizations was swift, but never complete. Sixty-eight indigenous groups survived and kept their cultures, traditions, and languages alive. Although they are still far from achieving political equality with mainstream Mexicans, proud indigenous tribes are nevertheless steadily growing in power and status.

Conclusion: Celebrating the Spirit of Mexican Resilience and Triumph

Mexican Day of the Dead characters celebrate Cinco de Mayo with their colorful musical instruments.

🌶️ Cinco de Mayo Celebrates Mexican Traditions. [6]

As we reflect upon the rich history and vibrant culture of the people of Mexico, it’s clear that a spirit of resilience and triumph is one of their defining characteristics. This spirit is a testament to their unwavering strength, determination, ingenuity, creativity, and sheer willpower in overcoming obstacles.

The nation's spirit of resilience and triumph is deeply rooted in values and traditions that have sustained it through times of struggle. From the indigenous communities that have preserved their heritage to modern-day innovators and entrepreneurs, the Mexican people have shown an unparalleled ability to adapt and thrive.

The Mexican people have proven time and again they have the strength and fortitude to overcome any obstacle. Despite the challenges and adversity the country has faced – from weathering economic downturns to confronting social and political upheaval – the Mexican people have consistently demonstrated their ability to overcome difficult times.

They’ve emerged from each hardship stronger and more unified than before. Their spirit continuously propels them with optimism and excitement toward a brighter future. We can be confident that the country will continue to thrive and grow in the years to come.

With a young, dynamic population, a thriving creative economy, and a deep well of national pride, Mexico is poised to continue its ascent as a global leader. By celebrating the spirit of Mexican resilience and triumph, we can draw inspiration for the challenges that lie ahead, confident in the knowledge that the Mexican people will rise to meet them with the same unwavering spirit that has defined their past.

As we celebrate this indomitable spirit and recognize Mexico’s remarkable achievements, can we help but be filled with a profound sense of optimism for the country’s future? Mexico’s rich cultural heritage, innovative spirit, and unwavering commitment to progress serve as a testament to the enduring power of the human spirit and as a beacon of hope, not only for its own citizens, but for all of us as well. ¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo! ☮️ Peace… Jamiese

A vibrant Cinco de Mayo image showcases traditional Mexican culture with cactuses and maracas.

🌮 ¡It's Cinco de Mayo! Celebrate Mexican Culture! [7]

A festive table is set with colorful Mexican cuisine and beverages in preparation for Cinco de Mayo.

🍻 Celebrate Cinco de Mayo with Festive Cuisine. [8]

🏺 Panoramic View of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) [9]

Two young imaginary superheroes sporting vibrant Mexican attire exuberantly celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

🦸🏽 Mexican Superheroes Celebrate Cinco de Mayo. [10]

Pre-teen children wearing Mexican-themed t-shirts ride their bicycles down a Ghibli-inspired street.

🚲 Hurry to Get to the Cinco de Mayo Festivities! [11]

Two young women sporting colorful Mexican-themed t-shirts enjoy a nature walk in a lush meadow.

🦋 Enjoy Mother Nature's Beauty on Cinco de Mayo! [12]

📚 Text Sources:

📷 Image Sources:

1. by Mediateca INAH; License: source website. Enhanced by Jamiese Hancy.

2. by Vector Tradition; License: Enhanced by Jamiese Hancy.,_1867-1893%29.svg by Дмитрий-5-Аверин; License: source website. Enhanced by Jamiese Hancy.

3. by S Pakhrin; License: Enhanced by Jamiese Hancy.

4. by Oncewerecolours; License: source website. Enhanced by Jamiese Hancy.

5. by unidentified photographer; License: No copyright information. Enhanced by Jamiese Hancy.

10. by Janna Mudrak; License: Enhanced by Jamiese Hancy. by Placeit; License: Enhanced by Jamiese Hancy. by Linnaea Mallette; License: source website. Enhanced by Jamiese Hancy. by Placeit; License: Enhanced by Jamiese Hancy.


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