In the Know: Cinco de Mayo

We thought you’d want to know the story behind Cinco de Mayo while you’re munching on your scratchDC fajitas with all the fixins. Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

To boil it down, Cinco de Mayo celebrates General Zaragoza’s unlikely triumph over the French army at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. To flesh it out, several wars in Mexico in the mid-19th century left the country bankrupt. Mexican President Juarez issued a moratorium on paying foreign debts, which angered Britain, France, and Spain. Britain and Spain negotiated a deal with Mexico, but France took this as an opportunity to expand its empire. Late in 1861, the French fleet landed in Veracruz; forced President Juarez to retreat; and moved towards Mexico City, meeting along the way a much smaller Mexican army (about half the size actually) at Puebla. Despite France’s clear advantage, the Mexican army won decisively. Victory was short-lived, however, because the French eventually defeated the Mexicans and installed an emperor. After the American Civil War, the United States stepped in and aided Mexico. France withdrew and the emperor was captured and executed. The Franco-Mexican War ran six years.

The battle at Puebla was significant for three reasons: 1) the Mexican army beat the odds; 2) the French had not lost a battle in over 50 years when they lost at Puebla; and 3) since the battle, no country in the Americas has been invaded by Europe.

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is not an official national holiday. It’s really solely celebrated in Puebla and neighboring Veracruz, where it’s known as El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla ("The Day of the Battle of Puebla”). Cinco de Mayo is primarily a U.S. holiday. It originated in California during the early years of the American Civil War as a tribute to freedom and democracy. Mexican-Americans were proud of Mexico's victory at Puebla. The holiday has been celebrated continuously in CA since 1863, spreading throughout the rest of the U.S. beginning in the 1940s as a tribute to Mexican heritage. Marketing the holiday began in the 1980s. Beer companies were among the first to promote the 5th of May.

(Don't confuse Cinco de Mayo with Mexican Independence Day, which marks the beginning of the war of independence against Spain on Sept. 16, 1810.)

The 22nd Annual National Cinco De Mayo Festival on the National Mall takes place May 4 from noon to 6. It’s free and open to all. Wear your red, white, and green!

Rose McCarthy
Rose McCarthy