The Mexican holiday known as "Cinco de Mayo" is widely misconstrued in this country, even by people of Mexican descent. Other people do not seem to care about the origin and cultural significance of Cinco de Mayo, they simply see it as an opportunity to go out and get drunk on Mexican beer at reduced prices. Despite its commercialization, this holiday is of importance to many people. This writing will attempt to clarify the meaning of this holiday and return some significance to a day that has lost most of it to the advertisement industry of this country.
The biggest misconception about Cinco de Mayo is that it commemorates of México's Independence Day. That holiday is, in fact, celebrated on September 16. On that date back in 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo issued a proclamation known as "El Grito de Dolores" that united the many different rebellions going on against Spain into one cohesive struggle. México achieved its independence from Spanish rule in 1821. Cinco de Mayo is actually a commemoration of a victory by Mexican troops in La Batalla de Puebla more that fifty years later, on May 5, 1862.
From the time of Mexican Independence in 1821 to the time of this battle in 1862, México suffered numerous setbacks in its attempts to form a stable republic, and endured several incursions into its sovereignty as an independent nation. Fifteen years into its independence, Texas seceded from México. The Texas Revolt was led by "American-Mexicans," Anglos who immigrated from the United States to México, promising to obey Mexican laws and respect Mexican traditions. This revolt eventually led to the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), a war won by the U. S. As a result, México was forced to surrender approximately half of its territory to the U. S. México, which had never been financially stable, underwent a severe economic crisis during the 1850s.
President Benito Juárez inherited México's troubled political and financial situation, which included a bankrupt Mexican treasury. As a result of these problems, President Juárez issued a moratorium in 1861 halting payments on Mexican foreign debt. Much of this debt was owed to France. Shortly thereafter, France sent troops to México to secure payment of its debt.
At the time, the French Army of Napoleon III was considered the premier army in the world. It had enjoyed recent victories throughout Europe and Asia. The French expected to march form the port city of Veracruz to Mexico City without encountering much resistance. President Juárez sent troops, under the command of General Ignacio Zaragosa, to Puebla to confront the French. The Mexican troops consisted almost entirely of indigenous soldiers, much like today. General Zaragosa's troops, outnumbered 4,700 to 5,200, were severely under-equipped. La Batalla de Puebla raged on for two hours, after which time the French were forced to retreat to Orizaba. Despite tremendous odds, the humble Mexican Army defeated the most powerful fighting unit in the world!
One year after La Batalla de Puebla, the French brought in more troops and re-attacked. This time they were able to make their way to Mexico City, take the capital, and install Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg as the reigning monarch of México. Maximilian ruled México for about four years, until his execution in 1867 by troops loyal to President Juárez, who regained power.
Although La Batalla de Puebla on Cinco de Mayo was rendered militarily insignificant by the French's subsequent victory, it did inject the Mexican people with pride and patriotism it had never before enjoyed. Since its independence from Spain in 1821, México had suffered one tragedy after another. La Batalla de Puebla was the first time that the Mexican pueblo could rally around a common cause and proudly proclaim, «¡Yo soy Mexicano!»
Cinco de Mayo is not celebrated in México to the same extent that it is by Chicanos in the U. S., mainly because El 16 de septiembre is seen as the more important holiday. The reason that Chicanos celebrated the holiday is that we appreciate its cultural significance (victory in the face of great odds and the patriotism it generated) more that its historical relevance. Also, General Ignacio Zaragosa, the leader at La Batalla de Puebla, was born in Texas while it was still part of México. For this reason, he is considered by many to be the first Chicano hero. Some scholars, including José Antonio Burciaga, believe that had the French defeated México at Puebla, France would have aided the South in the American Civil War in order to free Southern ports of the Union Blockade. During this time, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was enjoying success, and French intervention could have had an impact on the Civil War. It seems that even people not of Mexican descent may also have an indirect reason to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Whatever the case may be, people should realize that this holiday does have some historical and cultural significance to millions of people and that not everyone considers it an excuse to go out and party.