History of Cinco de Mayo


Cinco de Mayo is frequently regarded as the Mexican equivalent of the United States’ 4th of July. This is incorrect: it is the equivalent of the “5th of May” in Spanish.

Another misconception is that this has something to do with Mayonnaise. That, too, is a bum spread, as the condiment originated with the French, who will come into our story later.

Finally, it does not involve County Mayo in Ireland, though we’ll make sure the Irish get into this story at some point. Instead, the “Battle of Cinco de Mayo,” specifically the Battle of Puebla, occurred on May 5, 1862.


Background of Cinco de Mayo

Retrato_de_Benito_Juárez,_1861-1862President Benito Juarez, who had been Zapotec Indian Minister of Justice in Juan Alvarez‘s cabinet in the 1850s, entered Mexico City on January 11, 1861, and promptly expelled the Spanish minister, the papal legate, and members of the episcopate.

Additionally, he took steps to enforce the decrees of 1859, dis-endowing and disestablishing the church. He could not have known then that “antidisestablishmentarianism” would become the longest word in the English dictionary almost a century later.

Although Juarez was recognized by the United States and had received moral and military aid from the US, there were over $80,000,000 in debts at that time to Europe alone. The Mexican Congress, on July 17, 1861, decreed the suspension for two years of interest payments on the external national debt, and three months later, a convention occurred between Great Britain, France, and Spain, calling for joint intervention in Mexico.


European Involvement

zaragozaAs European forces advanced, mainly French troops, their advance was checked at Puebla on May 5, 1862. Commanded by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza, the Mexican troops defeated a larger and better-equipped French force.

EmperorMaximilianHowever, the following year, Napoleon III of France sent almost five times as many troops to Mexico to take over and install a puppet ruler, his relative, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, though he was defeated four years later.


Celebration of Cinco de Mayo

Many believe Cinco de Mayo is universally celebrated in Mexico as a day of independence. This is incorrect on two counts.

  • First, the call for Mexican independence, the Grito de Dolores, was made by Miguel Hidalgo at the town of Dolores on September 16, 1810. However, it was not recognized by the Spanish viceroy until 1821.
  • Secondly because it is not a federal holiday, Cinco de Mayo is not widely celebrated in Mexico except in Puebla, the largest city in the state of Puebla, Mexico.

Elsewhere in Mexico, it is observed by eating, drinking, and dancing. In the United States, however, it is widely recognized, especially along the border states that have significant Mexican-American populations, especially in California, to celebrate Hispanic pride and culture, similar to what Irish-Americans do on St. Patrick’s Day.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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