cinco de mayo
Photo courtesy of Hispanicize

Should we say… Happy Cinco de Mayo?

This date is pompously celebrated in the United States, yet there are still misconceptions about its origins today.

Cinco de Mayo is not even a significant event in Mexico, nor is it a celebration to commemorate Mexico’s independence from Spain. Cinco de Mayo is a celebration honoring the victory of Mexican troops at the Battle of Puebla against the forces of French Emperor Napoleon III’s troops in 1862.

So how did a victory by Mexican troops in 1862 become the celebration we know today, full of food, mariachis, and margaritas?

The true meaning of Cinco de Mayo 

Despite the popular misconception, the declaration of Mexico’s independence was 40 years before the Battle of Puebla, specifically on September 16, 1821. At the time of this battle, Mexico was struggling financially and had some debts to several countries in the European continent, and among them was France.

Napoleon III, whose name was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, was the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte himself and Emperor of France at the time. Emperor Napoleon used these debts as an excuse to take Mexico and extend his empire in 1862, winning the victory at Veracruz and driving the first indigenous Mexican president, Benito Juárez, into exile.

After this victory, the French troops decided to attack Puebla de Los Angeles. Although they thought a second victory was sure because they outnumbered the Mexican forces, France did not count on the tenacity of the Mexican people who marched into battle led by General Ignacio Zaragoza. 

Four days after this battle, President Juárez declared Cinco de Mayo a national holiday and Puebla de los Angeles was named Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of General Zaragoza.

Why is it celebrated in the United States?

After this victory against France in Puebla, the news reached Latinos and Latino communities living across the border in the United States. Celebrations began immediately in some parts of the country after the battle ended, mainly in California and Nevada.

David E. Hayes-Bautista, the director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the UCLA School of Medicine, was able to find evidence in old newspapers about the beginnings of this celebration. In his book, “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition,” he highlights how Latinos marched every Cinco de Mayo as a symbol of protest to demonstrate their position on the French interventions in Mexico and the Civil War in America.

By the beginning of the 20th century, new waves of Latino immigrants arrived in the United States due to the Mexican Revolution. These arrivals made the Cinco de Mayo celebration even bigger. Then it would be in the 1960s when the Chicano movement turned this day into a celebration of cultural pride.

How Cinco de Mayo became the commercial phenomenon we know today

Despite being a well-known celebration among Latino communities, it wasn’t as well known outside of them. During the 80s, when the Latino communities began to make their way into the U.S. economy and became a great force to be reckoned with, big companies saw this as a great opportunity.

In 1989, the importer of Corona and Negra Modelos in Texas, Gambrinus Group, launched a Cinco de Mayo campaign encouraging the Mexican American community to consume beer on this day. Everything changed at this point, and this day became a nationwide celebration where people eat guacamole, enjoy the rhythm of mariachis, and celebrate the great pride of being Mexican.