So what is Cinco de Mayo? Most Americans probably think it is Mexican Independence Day. They would be surprised that not only is it NOT Mexican Independence Day (that would be September 15, 1810), but that it is celebrated more in the United States than in Mexico!
In 1861, Benito Juarez became the president of Mexico, which was in deep debt to France, Britain, and Spain. If you remember from your history classes, the 1860s were not entirely pleasant for the United States either, as we were fighting each other in our bloody Civil War.
Britain and Spain both negotiated with Juarez and left, but France decided to make Mexico an empire dependent on France, and some say France was also attempting to use Mexico to supply the Confederate States in their battle against the Union. Napoleon III was confident in his troops and sent General Charles Latrille de Lorencez out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles (not our L.A.) with 6,000 men. Juarez could only manage 2,000 men in response and placed them under the command of Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza.
The Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the assault. On May 5, 1862, General Lorencez led an assault that lasted from daybreak to early evening. The Mexicans had superior cavalry, and the native Mexicans stirred up stampeding cattle with nothing but machetes to send towards the French, who were tromping through muddy fields after a thunderstorm. When the French retreated, they had lost almost 500 soldiers, compared to fewer than 100 Mexicans killed.
This was a great symbolic, vice strategic, victory for Juarez which bolstered the resistance. Six years later, the United States, finally finished with the Civil War, sent troops to Mexico to assist in tossing the French out under General Phil Sheridan. General Sheridan armed the Mexicans, and many American soldiers joined the Mexican Army. The American Legion of Honor marched in the Victory Parade in Mexico City. The same year, French Emperor of Mexico Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was captured and executed by Juarez’s forces. Puebla de Los Angeles was renamed after General Zaragoza.
In Mexico today, the majority of celebration takes place in the state of Puebla, where the battle took place. It is not a federal holiday, so everything stays open, and the day passes like any other in the majority of Mexico.
In the United States, however, the day is widely considered a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, not to mention a great reason to break out the tequila. The largest celebrations take place in Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago.
The holiday initially was supposed to be identification with a victory of indigenous Mexicans over European invaders, and indeed, that was the last time a European military force ever invaded the Americas. It was a symbol of the United States and Mexico coming together, standing shoulder to shoulder, to fight a mutual enemy.
As border tensions rise between Mexico and the US today, the friendship symbolized in the original celebration seems to be lost, a drunken revelry of Mexican-American heritage taking its place.