Cinco de Mayo

We get Cinco de Mayo wrong. But we’re not wrong to celebrate it

Cinco de Mayo

Some of history’s most significant what-ifs lie buried beneath layers of misunderstanding. So it is with Cinco de Mayo.

This annual celebration of Mexican culture gets bigger every year, fueled mainly by America’s love of a good party. Folks who aren’t from Mexico are often surprised to learn, as they quaff margaritas or savor tacos al carbon, that the holiday matters much less south of the border. Many mistakenly believe that May 5 is Mexican Independence Day, but that’s Sept. 16.

But it’s entirely appropriate that Cinco de Mayo matters more in the United States. The event commemorated on this holiday was a triumph of Mexican spirit and courage. For us, though, it just might have saved our nation.

When the future of the United States was threatened by the secession of 11 Southern states in 1860-1861, Confederate strategists looked for help in two directions. One was Europe; the other was Mexico.

Europe’s textile mills ran on Southern cotton. By cutting off the supply with an embargo, the rebels hoped to force France and Britain to recognize Southern independence.

Mexico, meanwhile, was a potential ally — or maybe even a future member of the new Confederacy.

These two ideas came together in the early months of the Civil War, when a coalition of European powers sent an armed force to collect debts from the Mexican government. Abraham Lincoln’s diplomats scrambled for a way to pay the debts to keep Mexico happy and encourage the Europeans to leave. But Congress shortsightedly refused to provide the money.

As 1861 came to an end, only the French remained, camped on the Gulf Coast. French Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of the famous general, rued his uncle’s decision to sell French holdings in North America to Thomas Jefferson more than 50 years earlier. He decided to topple the Mexican government and reestablish Parisian power in the Americas.

So in the spring of 1862, the French began marching toward Mexico City, with the Confederate rebels cheering them on. After conquering Mexico, the French would be perfectly positioned to ally with the South and tip the balance of the Civil War.

The road from the port of Veracruz to Mexico City covered several hundred uphill miles. Roughly midway, a steep valley narrowed to a single passage below a towering volcanic peak. Here lay the city of Puebla, through which all traffic to the capital had to go.

A young Mexican general, Ignacio Zaragoza, placed a small, tough force at Puebla and scoured the countryside for volunteers to bolster the defense. A long trench was added to the city’s existing fortifications. Some 4,500 men occupied this position on May 5, when 6,000 French troops under Major General Charles de Lorencez came up the valley.

The overconfident French nobleman ordered an immediate attack. Zaragoza’s riflemen found easy targets as de Lorencez’s soldiers charged the trenches. Those Frenchmen who survived the climb met savage hand-to-hand fighting at the Mexican trenches.

A second charge also failed. As Union and Confederate generals would soon learn on battlefields from Corinth, Miss., to Gettysburg, a ferocious foe in an entrenched position had a tremendous advantage. The bloody field filled with French bodies.

When a third charge also failed, Zaragoza unleashed his cavalry on both flanks of the retreating French. The battle became a rout, and de Lorencez fell back all the way to Veracruz, where he counted his losses (as many as 500 killed and wounded) and waited to be reinforced from back home.

As it happened, the tide of the Civil War was just about to swing away from the North. In the summer of 1862, a Union campaign against the Confederate capital of Richmond fell to pieces and the rebels advanced on all fronts. Pressure for European intervention reached the boiling point.

Had a triumphant French army been raising the flag in Mexico City that summer, it might have made all the difference. The wavering Napoleon might have been emboldened to recognize the Confederacy, pulling the British along with him.

Instead, the French army was licking its wounds, mangled by a smaller force of Mexican irregulars, and the emperor was momentarily chastened. Though France managed to topple the Mexican government the following year, its brief reign there came too late to help the South.

The North had regained its momentum, and Lincoln was on his way to saving the Union.

Cinco de Mayo is a day to celebrate what-ifs that never transpired. What if Europe had taken the side of the South? What if the United States had shattered? What if there had been no superpower to defend democracy in the 20th century, only rival nations with incompatible goals vying for the real estate we call the United States? What if the men at Puebla had not saved America?

Put that in your margarita and sip it, amigos. ¡Viva Mexico! ¡Y viva los Estados Unidos!

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Cinco de Mayo in the United States

Cinco de Mayo

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Cinco de Mayo is annually observed on May 5. It celebrates the defeat of the French army during the Battle of Puebla (Batalla de Puebla) in Mexico on May 5, 1862. It is not to be confused with Mexico's Independence Day.

Is Cinco de Mayo a Public Holiday?

Cinco de Mayo is not a public holiday. Businesses have normal opening hours.

Cinco de Mayo is a day of Mexican pride and heritage.


What Do People Do?

Cinco de Mayo is seen as a day to celebrate the culture, achievements and experiences of people with a Mexican background, who live in the United States.

There is a large commercial element to the day, with businesses promoting Mexican services and goods, particularly food, drinks and music.

Other aspects of the day center around traditional symbols of Mexican life, such as the Virgin de Guadalupe, and Mexican-Americans who have achieved fame, fortune and influence in the United States.

One of the largest Cinco de Mayo celebrations are in cities such as Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, San Antonio, Sacramento, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver and El Paso in the USA's south-western regions.

In these cities, a large proportion of the population has Mexican origins. Many people hang up banners and school districts organize lessons and special events to educate their pupils about the culture of Americans of Mexican descent.

In some areas, particularly in Pubelo de Los Angeles, celebrations of regional Mexican music and dancing are held.

Public Life

Cinco de Mayo is not a federal holiday in the United States. Organizations, businesses and schools are open as usual. Public transit systems run on their usual schedule. In some areas of some cities, especially those in the Southwest, local parades and street events may cause some local congestion to traffic.


Cinco de Mayo officially commemorates the anniversary of an early victory by Mexican forces over French forces in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. It is not the anniversary of the defeat and expulsion of the French forces by the Mexicans, which occurred in 1867.

It is also not, as is often assumed, the day of Mexico's celebrations of independence, which are actually held on September 16.

It is believed that the origins of Cinco de Mayo celebrations lie in the responses of Mexicans living in California in the 1860s to French rule in Mexico at that time.

We diligently research and continuously update our holiday dates and information. If you find a mistake, please let us know.

Cinco de Mayo, Battle of Puebla
سينكو دي مايو
Cinco de Mayo
סינקו דה מאיו
Cinco de Mayo, 5. mai (Seieren i Puebla, 1862)
Cinco de Mayo, Batalla de Puebla
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Cinco de Mayo from – The Battle of Puebla, Mexico in 1862

Cinco de Mayo

The holiday of Cinco De Mayo, The 5th Of May, commemorates the victory of the Mexican militia over the French army at The Battle Of Puebla in 1862.

It is primarily a regional holiday celebrated in the Mexican state capital city of Puebla and throughout the state of Puebla, with some limited recognition in other parts of Mexico, and especially in U.S. cities with a significant Mexican population.

It is not, as many people think, Mexico's Independence Day, which is actually September 16.

Setting The Stage

The battle at Puebla in 1862 happened at a violent and chaotic time in Mexico's history. Mexico had finally gained independence from Spain in 1821 after a difficult and bloody struggle, and a number of internal political takeovers and wars, including the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the Mexican Civil War of 1858, had ruined the national economy.

Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian

During this period of struggle Mexico had accumulated heavy debts to several nations, including Spain, England and France, who were demanding repayment. Similar debt to the U.S. was previously settled after the Mexican-American War. France was eager to expand its empire at that time, and used the debt issue to move forward with goals of establishing its own leadership in Mexico. Realizing France's intent of empire expansion, Spain and England withdrew their support. When Mexico finally stopped making any loan payments, France took action on its own to install Napoleon III's relative, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, as ruler of Mexico.

Mexico Confronts The Invasion

Map showing Veracruz, site of the French invasion

France invaded at the gulf coast of Mexico along the state of Veracruz (see map) and began to march toward Mexico City, a distance today of less than 600 miles. Although American President Abraham Lincoln was sympathetic to Mexico's cause, and for which he is honored in Mexico, the U.S. was involved in its own Civil War at the time and was unable to provide any direct assistance.

Gen. Zaragoza

Marching on toward Mexico City, the French army encountered strong resistance near Puebla at the Mexican forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. Lead by Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, a smaller, poorly armed militia estimated at 4,500 men were able to stop and defeat a well outfitted French army of 6,500 soldiers, which stopped the invasion of the country. The victory was a glorious moment for Mexican patriots, which at the time helped to develop a needed sense of national unity, and is the cause for the historical date's celebration. Unfortunately, the victory was short lived. Upon hearing the bad news, Napoleon III had found an excuse to send more troops overseas to try and invade Mexico again, even against the wishes of the French populace. 30,000 more troops and a full year later, the French were eventually able to depose the Mexican army, take over Mexico City and install Maximilian as the ruler of Mexico.

Maximilian's rule of Mexico was also short lived, from 1864 to 1867. With the American Civil War now over, the U.S.

began to provide more political and military assistance to Mexico to expel the French, after which Maximilian was executed by the Mexicans – his bullet riddled shirt is kept at the museum at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City.

So despite the eventual French invasion of Mexico City, Cinco de Mayo honors the bravery and victory of General Zaragoza's smaller, outnumbered militia at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.

Today's Celebration

For the most part, the holiday of Cinco de Mayo is more of a regional holiday in Mexico, celebrated most vigorously in the state of Puebla. There is some limited recognition of the holiday throughout the country with different levels of enthusiasm, but it's nothing that found in Puebla.

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo has become increasingly popular along the U.S.-Mexico border and in parts of the U.S. that have a high population of people with a Mexican heritage. In these areas the holiday is a celebration of Mexican culture, of food, music, beverage and customs unique to Mexico.

Commercial interests in the United States and Mexico have also had a hand in promoting the holiday, with products and services focused on Mexican food, beverages and festivities, with music playing a more visible role as well. Several cities throughout the U.S. hold parades and concerts during the week following up to May 5th, so that Cinco de Mayo has become a bigger holiday north of the border than it is to the south, and being adopted into the holiday calendar of more and more people every year.

[Sources: Encyclopedia Encarta, Encyclopedia Britanica, Prescott's Mexico:1900,, other sources. minor edits April 25, 2007]

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