Cinco de Mayo

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Cinco de Mayo, the 5th of May in Spanish, is a Mexican regional holiday that, within Mexico, is celebrated primarily in the state of Puebla and the federal district but is also observed to some extent in other parts of the country. In contrast to the relatively small amount of attention that the holiday receives in Mexico itself, Cinco de Mayo has become a popular celebration of Mexican heritage among the Mexican diaspora abroad. Due to its popularity and the patriotic themes it celebrates, people sometimes mistakenly assume that the 5th of May marks the date of Mexican independence. In reality, Mexican independence is celebrated on September 16 while Cinco de Mayo commemorates a later battle and unlikely victory by Mexican forces against French invaders at the city of Puebla on May 5th, 1862.

The Battle of Puebla

For more information, see the full article: Battle of Puebla

Benito Juárez was installed as president of Mexico at the beginning of 1861 following the conclusion of the War of Reform. Upon coming into office, Juárez found his government faced with imminent bankruptcy and in July of 1861 he announced that all payments would be suspended on the substantial debt that the Mexican government owed to Spain, France, and England. In response, the lending nations made plans to seize the customs house at the port of Veracruz; Spanish troops arrived arrived at the end of 1861 and were followed soon after by troops dispatched from England and France.

The Mexican government negotiated a withdrawal of the Spanish and English forces in the spring of 1862, but the French announced their intention to install a monarchy in Mexico City, and invited sympathetic Mexicans to join their cause. To that end, French troops were ordered to march on Mexico City. On May 4th a force of some 6,000 French cavalry and infantry commanded by General Lorencez made camp outside of the city of Puebla, midway between Veracruz and the capital.

The French encountered significant resistance at Puebla. There, historian Hubert Howe Bancroft reports, Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza addressed his commanders: "[he] represented to them the danger menacing their country and the disgrace of allowing an invading army, however formidable, to advance unchecked on the capital. 'If we cannot defeat them, we can at least cripple them,' he argued."[1] The Mexicans sustained heavy casualties in the skirmishes fought during the course of the day on the 5th but aided by the local populace, Zaragoza's troops succeeded in holding off the French army. Zaragoza was reinforced on the 7th and 8th and the French army retreated.

The French eventually regrouped and launched a second campaign the following year with more than 25,000 troops. This effort met with more success and the army reached Mexico City in June of 1863. Maximilian of Hapsburg was installed as emperor of Mexico in April of 1864 but his reign was short, lasting only until 1867 after Napoleon III withdrew his support and the Republicans retook Chapultepec Castle.

President Juárez declared Cinco de Mayo a national holiday in September of 1862 on the anniversary of the Grito de Dolores. Following on the heels of the Mexican-American War, which resulted in the loss of half of Mexico's national territory to the United States, the victory at Puebla over one of the world's most elite military forces became a symbol of Mexico's ability to defend itself against foreign aggression. The bravery and resolve of the defenders of Puebla came to be remembered as "a testimonial manifesto of patriotism and pride in Mexican identity and nationhood."[2]


Mexican celebrations of Cinco de Mayo are mainly limited to the areas surrounding Puebla and large population centers like Mexico City.[3] Early celebrations are not well documented but one description does exist for a reconstruction that was staged in Peñón near Mexico City in 1933.[4] Celebrations are much more widespread in the United States among the Mexican diaspora than in Mexico itself.

United States

(CC) Photo: Obie Fernandez
Three themes celebrating Mexican culture that are common in Cinco de Mayo parades.

Cinco de Mayo was first commemorated by the Mexican community in the United States in 1863. Laurie Kay Sommers documents the organization of a dance in honor of the occasion that year in San Francisco, a city that had been a part of the Mexican Republic less than two decades earlier.[5] Through the middle of the 20th century, "only a few Cinco de Mayo festivals could be found in the United States, entirely in the American Southwest including California."[4]

Celebrations became increasingly common in the United States in the second half of the 20th century. This trend began in the 1960s with the promotion of the holiday by the Chicano Movement as a "focal point for public display of the issues and cultural icons of the Movement."[5] Students at the University of Minnesota, for example, incorporated Cinco de Mayo into their educational and political activities during Chicano Week in the 1970s.[6]

In the 1980s, Cinco de Mayo celebrations started to become more commercialized. Corporations such as Coors Brewing Company began to sponsor Cinco de Mayo celebrations as a part of their strategy to increase their visibility and improve their images in the Latino community.[7] Such arrangements provided organizers the funds they required to stage large-scale events but did not always ultimately work in their favor: in Saint Paul, for instance, a parade sponsored by the Concord Street Business Association allowed vendors to promote "whatever they wished, whether it had any cultural, educational, or social value or relationship to the national holiday, and by the early 1990s it retained only modest Mexican cultural content."[6]

A survey conducted in 1998 cataloged 120 celebrations dispersed over 21 U.S. states[4] and official celebrations numbered 150 or more in 2006.[3]


  1. Hubert Howe Bancroft. 1914. History of Mexico: Being a Popular History of the Mexican People from the Earliest Primitive Civilization to the Present Time. The Bancroft Co.
  2. Rafaela G. Castro. 2001. Chicano Folklore: A Guide to the Folktales, Traditions, Rituals and Religious Practices of Mexican Americans. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 56.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Stefan Lovgren. 2006. Cinco de Mayo, From Mexican Fiesta to Popular U.S. Holiday. National Geographic News. Available online
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Alvar W. Carlson. 1998. America's Growing Observance of Cinco de Mayo. Journal of American Culture 21(2): 7-16.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Laurie Kay Sommers. 1985. "Symbol and Style in Cinco de Mayo." The Journal of American Folklore 98(390): 476-482.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Dennis Nodín Valdés. 2000. Barrios Norteños: St. Paul and Midwestern Mexican Communities in the Twentieth Century. Austin: University of Texas Press
  7. Valerie Menard. 2004. The Latino Holiday Book: From Cinco de Mayo to Dia de Los Muertos--the Celebrations and Traditions of Hispanic-Americans. Marlowe & Company.