Americans might love Cinco de Mayo, but few know what they’re celebrating

Many Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but how many actually know the story of the holiday?

Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo doesn’t mark Mexican Independence, which is celebrated on Sept. 16. Instead, it’s meant to commemorate the Battle of Puebla, which was fought between the Mexican and French armies in 1862.

In Mexico’s long and storied history, the Battle of Puebla is generally considered a fairly minor event. But its legacy lives on a century and a half later, particularly in the United States.

Beating back an empire

After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, other nations were reluctant to recognize the autonomy of the fledgling country. In the ensuing decades, Mexico lost a large portion of its land to the U.S. and entered into a period of economic and political instability.

This was punctuated by a civil war in the late 1850s that resulted in Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president, taking power in 1861.

One of Juarez’s first acts was canceling repayments on foreign loans in an attempt to protect Mexico’s struggling economy. This angered Britain, Spain and France, and prompted them to send a joint expeditionary force to Mexico. However, Britain and Spain quickly withdrew as it became clear that French ruler Napoleon III was more interested in overthrowing the new Mexican government.

During the battle, French forces outnumbered the Mexicans two to one. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
The Battle of Puebla took place on May 5, 1862, when the Mexican Army, led by Commander General Ignacio Zaragoza, repelled attacks by the French army on the city of Puebla, located about 70 miles southeast of Mexico City.

It was a small but inspirational victory for Mexico, and four days later, on May 9, 1862, Juárez declared Cinco de Mayo a national holiday.

Even though the French would eventually defeat the Mexican Army and take control of the country under the short-lived Second Mexican Empire, which lasted from 1864 to 1867, the victory in the Battle of Puebla sent a powerful message to the rest of the world.

The Mexican Army was outnumbered two to one by seasoned French troops, so Mexico proved itself to be a formidable opponent worthy of international respect. And the fact that the country was led by an indigenous president held a special symbolic significance.

An inadvertent impact on US history?

The Battle of Puebla may have also had an inadvertent impact on the United States, which, at the time, was embroiled in its Civil War.