You might have heard about Cinco de Mayo parties. But even though celebrations of Cinco de Mayo originated in Mexico, the day is more prevalent in the United States! So, what does Cinco de Mayo celebrate?

Cinco de Mayo is an annual celebration held on May 5 to honor the Mexican army‘s victory over the French empire at the Battle of Puebla.

More popularly commemorated in the United States than Mexico, the date has become associated with the celebration of Mexican-American culture. In Mexico, the remembrance of the battle continues to be mostly ceremonial, such as through military parades or battle re-enactments.

Cinco de Mayo History

In 1861, Benito Juárez, a lawyer and member of the native Zapotec tribe became the President of Mexico. At the time, the country was in economic ruin after years of internal strife, and the new president was obliged to default on debt payments to European government.

In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz, Mexico, demanding repayment. England and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew their troops. However, President of France Napoleon III decided to use the opportunity to set up the French colony in Mexico, using the Mexican debt as an excuse to invade.

Line drawing of the Battle of Puebla.

Battle of Puebla

In 1861, a well-armed 6000 French troop under General Charles Latrille de Lorencez set out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico and to drive President Juárez and his government into retreat. Taken by surprise, Juárez rounded up a ragtag force of 2,000 loyal men and sent them to Puebla.

Led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, the Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the assault by the well-equipped French force. On the fifth of May, Lorencez gathered his army and began an attack from the north side of Puebla. The battle lasted from day to evening for five years. After the American government’s pressure to end the war and Lorencez realizing his superior French force had lost nearly 500 soldiers, while Mexicans suffered less than 100 casualties, he ultimately withdrew his defeated army. Mexico miraculously won on May 5th, 1862. Though this victory was not a strategic win for Mexicans, it symbolized their undying strength.

Puebla de Los Angeles was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the general who led them to the victory.

Ice cold margarita on a table full of Mexican-American food.

How did Cinco de Mayo Get Popular in the United States?

During the Battle of Puebla, Latinos in California heard about the war and decided to raise money for Mexican troops. From forming a patriotic network to donating resources, residents would gather together to fight for freedom and democracy in Mexico.

During the 1940s, the Chicano Movement started to increase in popularity and brought Cinco de Mayo to light. The early celebrations would bring in war heroes to celebrate their resilience and their perseverance, while other festivities included re-enactments of the war. People identified with the victory of Puebla and marked the occasion with parades, bands, and music. Despite the holiday not being so prevalent in Mexico, the United States started to celebrate the holiday more prominently in the 50s.

Cinco de Mayo Today

Although Mexico does not celebrate the win at Puebla, the town where the war was fought still host reenactments of the battle. In the United States, revelers mark the occasion with parties, parades, Mexican folk dancing, listening to mariachi music, and relishing traditional Mexican delicacies. From Los Angeles to Chicago to Houston, Cinco de Mayo is remembered as a day filled with happiness and to face our challenges head-on.

What is your favorite Cinco de Mayo tradition? Tell us in the comments!