Why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

Mexican flag image from International Service Learning

Pull out your sombreros, put on some mariachi music, and cook up some enchiladas, it’s Cinco de Mayo, America’s favorite day to celebrate Mexican-American heritage! What better day to break out your favorite Mexican beer than Mexico’s equivalent of the Fourth of July?

Except Cinco de Mayo is NOT Mexico’s Independence Day. No, Mexico celebrates its independence on September 16th. Not only that, but it turns out Cinco de Mayo is not even all that widely celebrated in Mexico; it’s a much bigger holiday in the United States.

Just what the heck is going on here? How did that happen? Why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

The Monroe Doctrine, Mexico’s debt, and an Ambitious Emperor

Benito Juarez image from Wikipedia

First, we need a little background. In the early 19th century, Latin American countries were winning their independence left and right as the Spanish colonial empire was collapsing. Many European powers saw this as an opportunity to build their own empires in the New World, by conquering some of these newly-independent and still quite weak countries. In 1823, U.S. President James Monroe announced that the United States would not tolerate any European power even thinking about attempting such a scheme. After all, the United States was a very young nation at the time, too, and so an attack on any newly-independent country in the Americas could be threatening to each and every one of them. The so-called Monroe Doctrine became a key cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, and for years, it successfully warned away any European powers from trying anything funny.

However, in 1861, the United States found itself a bit distracted by the Civil War, providing an opening for any ambitious European ruler. French Emperor Napoleon III was just such a ruler. He seized power in 1848, and had some big shoes to fill; his uncle, the more famous Napoleon I, had conquered or dominated most of Europe at the peak of his power. The younger Napoleon hoped to have some imperial military conquests to his name as well, getting involved in the Crimean War and waging a campaign in Italy. Still not satisfied, he set his sights on the Americas, and specifically had plans in store for Mexico.

Mexico’s first half-century of independence was quite difficult and chaotic, with frequent military coups and civil wars. In 1861, Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first Native American president, was elected after leading his faction to victory in the Reform War a year earlier. The war had bankrupted his country, and he was forced to suspend payments on Mexico’s massive debt just to keep the government afloat. This upset foreign creditors, who conspired to try to force Mexico to pay back what it owed by invading and occupying the key port city of Veracruz.

Naturally, France was one of the countries participating in the invasion of Veracruz. To Napoleon III, this was the opportunity he needed, and soon his armies were marching on Mexico City itself.

The Battle of Puebla

Battle of Puebla image from Wikipedia

It was an act of foolishness, really. French General Charles de Lorencez thought that the people of Puebla were opponents of the Mexican government and would support the French forces. So, on May 5, 1862, he ordered his forces to attack the garrison there. He had every reason to assume he would win, he had 6,500 highly-trained French troops while the Mexican garrison was defended by 4,500 troops who were mainly untrained civilians from the volunteer militia.

So cocky was de Lorencez that he didn’t start the attack until mid-day, giving his opponents plenty of time to prepare. The French were too late, the Mexican forces had entrenched positions and were holding their ground. The French ran out of ammunition, and were forced to retreat. When the battle was over, only 83 of the Mexican defenders had been killed, compared to 462 French soldiers.

To Mexico, the victory at the Battle of Puebla on the fifth of May (Cinco de Mayo in Spanish) was a symbol of Mexican pride, strength, and resistance in the coming war.

Too bad Mexico lost that war.

In one of those odd twists and turns of history, the victory at Puebla merely stalled the French. By 1864, the French were in possession of Mexico City, and Napoleon III had set up a puppet government led by an Austrian prince named Maximilian that crowned himself Emperor of Mexico. It wasn’t until after the Civil War in the United States ended that Uncle Sam could use its muscle to force the French out and restore Juárez and the Mexican government.

Perhaps that’s why Cinco de Mayo isn’t a particularly important holiday in Mexico, because it was only a fleeting victory. Still, every year children in Mexico have the day off of school, and in Puebla a historical reenactment of the battle is held.

So why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the United States?

Kid with Flag image from Woodsmen of the World

When news of the Mexican victory at Puebla reached Mexican-American communities in California, people responded with jubilation, spontaneously setting off fireworks and breaking into song. California was on the Union side in the Civil War, and Mexican-American soldiers in the Union Army saw the battle as a badge of pride, proof that their people could accomplish great things on the battlefield.

For generations, the annual celebration of Cinco de Mayo remained a regional oddity of the Latino communities of California, but that started to change with the rise of the Chicano civil rights movement. The holiday spread to Mexican-American communities across the United States as a convenient day to celebrate their heritage, culture, and history. However, the holiday didn’t really go mainstream until alcohol got involved.

Because of course.

Because of course.

In 1989, a Texas-based importer of Corona, Modelo, and other Mexican beers launched an ad campaign encouraging Americans to celebrate Cinco de Mayo by trying Mexican beers. The campaign worked, and Corona became one of the best-selling beers in America, with peak sales around Cinco de Mayo. It also didn’t hurt that May is when the weather starts to get warm and summer-like in many parts of the country, so an excuse to fire up the grill and down a few brewskis is certainly welcome. Plus, the holiday is great for avocado farmers, who sell 81 million of them on this day as everyone tries out their favorite guacamole recipes.

As for me, you already know how I’m going to celebrate Cinco de Mayo this year.

Oh, yeah!

Oh, yeah!

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