Cinco De Mayo: Not Quite Mexican
Time to bring out those sombreros and piñatas! Cinco de Mayo, which literally means the "Fifth of May" is an unofficial holiday in the United States and parts of Mexico. With the day falling on a weekend this year, you can expect many more festivities -- whether it be a backyard party with nachos, guacamole, and margaritas, or listening to a Mariachi band play. [see side notes]
But what really is the significance of this day, besides a celebration of Latin-American roots and culture? Well, it is not a Mexican independence day as some mistakenly believe. Nor is it the day that the Spanish conquered Mexico city. Matter of fact, Cinco de Mayo has very little to do with Mexico, and is a bigger affair in the United States. According to a recent study by UCLA professor Hayes-Bautista, the first Cinco de Mayo celebrations were held in California and created by the state's Latinos in 1862!
Battle of Puebla
The real story of Cinco de Mayo weaves together the stories of two wars -- the American Civil War, and the French attack on Mexico.
Mexico, after its independence from Spain in 1810 was struggling and had borrowed heavily from England, France and Spain. Then President Benito Juarez ordered all debt payments be stopped for two years. While this angered all the lenders, France's Napoleon III decided to use the opportunity to invade Mexico in 1852. French warships landed at the Mexican port of Veracruz, hoping for a smooth victory. However, in a surprising turn of events, the well-equipped army of 8,000 French soldiers was defeated by an ill-equipped Mexican army half that size on May 5.
The battle of Puebla, as it came to be known, didn't end the war. Napoleon sent reinforcements, and this time the French captured Mexico City and placed Maximilian, an Austrian Archduke, in charge of Mexico.
The American Civil War
Meanwhile, in the U.S, the Confederates who supported slavery had hijacked the southern part of the United States, claiming it as a separate country. The country was in the grips of a civil war, and the Union soldiers loyal to the government were suffering defeat at the hands of the Confederates who were spreading westwards.
The Confederates had the support of Napoleon as well. However, by the time the French sent reinforcements after their defeat in Puebla, the Union soldiers had re-grouped and had the upper hand in the Civil War. Historians believe that, had the French army taken root in Mexico earlier, the fate of the Civil war might have been different. With the Union now firmly in control after the end of the Civil War, the U.S government sent an army to liberate Mexico. Maximilian I was executed.
Mexico's victory at Puebla was a David-defeats-Goliath moment. As news of the victory spread to North America, Latinos in California rejoiced as it represented a defeat for the Confederates and a symbol of national pride. Speeches, parades, dances and banquets marked the occasion, and continue to this day as a symbolic goodwill gesture between the two peoples. Coincidentally, this year is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla!