Every year, across the United States, Jedi day is usually immediately followed by a widespread celebration of Mexican and chicano culture.
According to a recent survey, 39% of Americans believe Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexican Independence. This is not true, and it’s hard to find many parallelisms between May 5th and July 4th.
However, this doesn’t mean Cinco de Mayo is just a marketing gimmick for discounted margaritas and memes about sombreros. Behind this date is a battle, the people who fought it, and up to three countries that saw its history altered by it.
What is Cinco de Mayo?
Cinco de Mayo celebrations commemorate the Battle of Puebla, fought in May 5th, 1862 between Mexico and France.
Key players in this battle were Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza, the French General Charles de Lorencez, and approximately 12,000 soldiers – 4,000 on the Mexican side and 6,000 on the French side.
The battle of Puebla and the victory of the underdog
This battle was just one among many in a larger war, which is now known as the "Second French Intervention". Under orders from Napoleon III (the decidedly uncooler nephew of the big Napoleon Bonaparte), General Charles de Lorencez landed in Mexico to essentially pressure Mexico into paying their debts.
In order to accomplish this, the French Army needed to reach Mexico City, the capital. Just 70 miles before the capital stood the smaller town of Puebla and General Zaragoza’s soldiers.
The French Army was larger, better equipped, and made up of skilled infantry and experienced mercenaries, so de Lorencez thought that a quick artillery pounding would take care of the city walls quickly.
Long story short, it did not. The Mexican forces resisted for four days and made the French retreat. Two years after that battle, France eventually won the War and took control of the country. They even installed their own puppet Emperor, Maximilian I.
Nonetheless, the battle of May the 5th stood as a symbol of Mexican resistance and grit. Throughout the war and during the three years following it, Mexican guerrilla fighters used the battle of Puebla as a morale booster, and eventually reclaimed their country.
The town of Puebla continued to remember the battle, although it eventually slipped away from their national calendars.
So wait, it’s not celebrated in Mexico?
Cinco de Mayo is definitely not as popular in Mexico as it is across the United States. In the town of Puebla, it is still celebrated as The Day of the Battle of Puebla. Locals hold parades, food festivals, and historical re-enactments.
Undoubtedly, the party is much bigger north of the border. It would be easy to think that this is a recent phenomenon, spurred by recent Latino Pride. Once again, assumptions land us in the wrong place: Cinco the Mayo began to be celebrated in the States from the very beginning.
How the Battle of Puebla Ended Up Helping Shape America
The first Cinco de Mayo celebration in the United States occurred in May 27th, 1862 in the town of Columbia, Southern California. This town homed a significant group of Mexican miners who favored the Union in the simultaneous American Civil War. As soon as they received news of the battle, they put their tools down and began celebrating.
For them, the French defeat was a Union victory as much as it was a Mexican one. Back in the 1860s, the French Army was considered one of the best in the world. It was also widely believed at the time that their true purpose in the Americas was to aid the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Thanks to the Battle of Puebla, the French March towards the United States ended up lasting a lot more than it should have. Instead of gaining a quick base from where to send aid, General de Lorencez got dragged into a protracted two-year war, followed by constant guerrilla attacks.
Otherwise – who knows? This is where we get into the realm of speculation. But one thing is sure: the American Civil War would’ve received an entire new set of players.
Why Cinco de Mayo Matters Now
Nowadays, Cinco de Mayo is a big day for Mexican Americans. Every major community in the country needs a day to rally around and share what makes them special. For many second- and third-generation Mexican Americans, Cinco de Mayo serves as a great reminder of the traditions they came from and the new ones they have built.
Mexican Americans have contributed numerous politicians, movie stars, athletes, and regular hardworking citizens to the larger melting pot of the country.
A United States without Mexicans would be completely unrecognizable. If the history of this holiday can show us anything, is that both countries have been intertwined from the very beginning – and that deserves, at the very least, a yearly toast!
This is why Lingopie decided to make our lunch breaks a little bit longer today – as language lovers, many of us first came into contact with Spanish by overhearing the sweet accents of Mexico. We wouldn’t be here without you!
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