Cinco de Mayo: A celebration of Mexican — and American — values

Men in costumes reenacting fight in battle (© Andrew Winning/Reuters)
People reenact the 1862 Battle of Puebla in a Mexico City neighborhood in 2004. (© Andrew Winning/Reuters)

Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo every May 5 with Mexican favorites such as mole, pozole and margaritas. The date commemorates Mexico’s victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862.

Mexicans long have honored this reaffirmation of their national independence against a would-be colonizer.

The growth in popularity of Cinco de Mayo in the United States speaks to both the strong cultural identity of Mexican Americans and the historical friendship between the United States and Mexico. Celebrated by Mexican Americans as well as their fellow citizens, the day is marked in cities not far from Mexico such as San Antonio and El Paso, but also in places like St. Paul, Minnesota, and Chicago.

A battle won against all odds

In 1861, Mexican President Benito Juárez ordered a moratorium on foreign debt payments. Mexico reached agreements with Britain and Spain, but French Emperor Napoleon III invaded in hopes of establishing a friendly regime aligned with French interests.

France’s military was among the strongest in the world, whereas the Mexican army was smaller and undersupplied.

The French army took the city of Campeche in late February of 1862. But two months later, a 4,000-person Mexican army led by General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín defeated the 8,000-strong French army in the first Battle of Puebla. The victory ensured Mexico would remain free from European domination. It also would have an impact on events in Mexico’s northern neighbor, the United States.

Painting depicting soldiers fighting on arid landscape (© Patricio Ramos Ortega. Photo: Leemage/Corbis/Getty Images)
Battle of Puebla painting by Patricio Ramos Ortega (© Patricio Ramos Ortega. Photo: Leemage/Corbis/Getty Images)

U.S.-Mexico relationship grows

As General Zaragoza defeated the French at Puebla, the U.S. was waging a war of its own, a brutal civil war that ended with the defeat of the slaveholding Confederacy and the end of slavery in the United States. But in 1862, the outcome of that war was not certain.

Napoleon III was aligned with Confederate leaders and wanted to supply their army with ammunition to fight the Union forces.

“If the French had taken Puebla and gone on to Mexico City, the [U.S.] Civil War would have turned out very differently,” says David Hayes-Bautista, author of El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition.

Mexican Americans in California closely followed news coverage of Puebla.

On learning the French had left Mexico, they celebrated the triumph of democratic values. Many were inspired to enlist in the Union Army, contributing, Hayes-Bautista says, to the ultimate Union victory.

Woman flaring long red skirt as she and other dancers perform in traditional Mexican outfits (© Nick Ut/AP Images)
A Cinco de Mayo celebration in Los Angeles in 2011 (© Nick Ut/AP Images)

“Latinos [in the United States and Mexico] could finally breathe a sigh of relief that their children would grow up under freedom, equality and democracy,” says Hayes-Bautista, “and those children continued to celebrate Cinco de Mayo for the rest of the 19th century.”

Since the 19th century, Mexican Americans in the United States have used Cinco de Mayo to celebrate Mexican culture in their adopted country. In recent decades, Cinco de Mayo has grown beyond the Mexican American community and is celebrated by Americans of all ethnicities.

Los Angeles — home to roughly 5 million Mexican Americans — hosts the world’s largest Cinco de Mayo celebration.