By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
Originally published May 5, 2017
In case you don’t know, Cinco de Mayo means the Fifth of May in Spanish.
So sit down with a margarita, put on some mariachi music and read about this almost more American than Mexican holiday. (May 5 is often confused with the Mexican day of independence. The nation celebrates its Independence Day on September 16. On this date in 1810, Mexico won her independence from Spain.)
Cinco de Mayo does commemorate an historic event in the city of Puebla de Los Angeles in Mexico. President Benito Juarez sent a rag tag army of volunteers to meet the French army there. General Zaragoza led this army against the much-better supplied French army. The 4,000 man Mexican army defeated the 8,000 man French army on May 5, 1862. The French army was considered the best in the world at that time and defeating the French was a huge morale booster, and gave the beleaguered country a sense of unity and patriotism. The Mexicans lost 100 men in the battle, the French 500.
France returned next year with a much bigger army (30,000 soldiers) and a chip on its shoulder. This time France defeated Mexico, and ruled the country for three years. How did this all come about? When Juarez became president in 1861, Mexico was broke. They were still recovering from the Mexican-American war in the 1840s, when a defeated Mexico allowed the United States to annex Texas. The country had borrowed money from Spain, Britain and France to keep the country going, and was recovering from the defeat. It couldn’t afford to pay back the loans.
Spain and Britain negotiated with Mexico and settled the matter. France was in no mood to settle; they wanted more territory and decided to invade Mexico at the port city of Veracruz. France only ruled Mexico for three years, installing Maximillian I as king. The United States was able to help Mexico after the Civil War ended. With additional funds and arms, plus with the pressure on France from Prussia, France withdrew to protect closer borders. In June, 1867, President Benito Juarez became president again, and started pulling Mexico back together.
Interesting Facts about Cinco de Mayo:
- Napoleon III, the emperor of France, had the idea to take over Mexico, and then send arms and men to help the Confederate Army. Not that he was pro-Southern, he just wanted the nation to continue to be divided and weak. Since this invasion, no foreign country has ever invaded any nation in the Americas.
- Some historians believe that if it were not for the Mexican victory during the Battle of Puebla, the Confederates would have won the Civil War and changed the fate of the United States forever.
- Cinco de Mayo is not a federal holiday in Mexico, and is not really celebrated outside of Puebla and a few other cities. In the United States, however, it is a huge holiday.
In and around Puebla, “Cinco de Mayo” is known as El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (the Day of Puebla Battle). And they celebrate with re-enactments and parades more than with tequila, margaritas and such.
- May 5th was made more popular under Franklin Roosevelt, who established the “Good Neighbors policy” in the 1930s.
- Americans eat nearly 81 million pounds of avocadoes on Cinco de Mayo every year, according to the California Avocado Commission.
- Many cities in the United States celebrate Cinco de Mayo with weekend-long festivals, including Denver, Chicago, Portland and San Diego.
- Los Angeles wins with the largest party (in the world!). It is called Fiesta Broadway. Many other countries enjoy this celebration as well. Even Vancouver, Canada has a big celebration, with a skydiving mariachi band!
- Chandler, Arizona has a Chihuahua race on May 5!
- Because we like to celebrate and drink tequila, the United States drinks more of this potent liquor than Mexico, where most tequila is made!
- Enchiladas and tamales make up more the traditional dishes and as they take a bit of time to create and cook, it becomes a time for family togetherness.