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The History of Cinco de Mayo

Published: May 5, 2014

Today is the Mexican-American holiday of Cinco de Mayo! Why do we celebrate this day?

The mid-1800s were a turbulent time in Mexico. There was the Mexican-American war of 1846-48, the Mexican Civil War of 1858, and the Reform Wars of 1860, a struggle between liberal and conservative groups about what kind of government the country should have. All these wars cost a lot of money. When Mexico couldn’t repay the debts it owed to foreign countries like France, Britain, and Spain, they sent forces over to demand payment.

France in particular—under the rule of Napoleon III (the more infamous Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew)—wanted to create a new empire in Latin America that would serve French interests. In late 1861, France invaded Mexico and began marching westward toward Mexico City. On the way, they met with resistance near Puebla. But even though the French troops outnumbered the Mexican army there—nearly two to one—the Mexicans defeated them on May 5, 1862.

Cinco de Mayo, or as it is known in Mexico, El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (The Day of the Battle of Puebla), celebrates this victory, which gave the Mexican resistance a sense of patriotism and unity. After all, France had the greatest army in the world at the time. Soon after the battle, the president of Mexico declared May 5 a national holiday.

Mexican-Americans began celebrating Cinco de Mayo in the southwestern and western United States, where there were large Mexican-American communities. It has since spread across the country as a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage. Here in Minnesota, the West Side of St. Paul holds an all-day Cinco de Mayo festival, with a parade, car show, live music, arts and crafts, and more!