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Unlocking the Mystery of Cinco de Mayo, Why Americans Celebrate it



Cinco de Mayo is a day of Mexican pride and heritage.

On 5th May every year, Americans throw parties, parades, and enjoy Mexican food to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. But here’s the thing, Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexico’s Independence Day. Which is celebrated on September 16th. In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo isn’t even a big holiday.

So, what’s the deal with Cinco de Mayo in the U.S.? Well, it actually marks a battle that happened in 1862 in the town of Puebla, Mexico. Back then, Mexico was in debt and struggling. France, led by Napoleon III, wanted to take advantage of this and conquer Mexico. But at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862, Mexican soldiers, against all odds, defeated the French army.

Now, here’s why it’s celebrated in the U.S., After the battle, Mexican Americans and anti-slavery folks in America saw this victory as a symbol of hope and unity against oppression. So, over time, Cinco de Mayo became a way to celebrate Mexican culture and pride in the U.S. Today, it’s a colorful fiesta with music, dancing, and lots of delicious tacos and margaritas, bringing people together to honor Mexican heritage.

What is Cinco De Mayo?

Cinco de Mayo, which means “Fifth of May” in Spanish, is celebrated every year on May 5th. It’s a special day in Mexico because it commemorates a big victory at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. In that battle, General Ignacio Zaragoza led the Mexican army to defeat the powerful French forces of the Second French Empire.

Performers re-enacting the Battle of Puebla as part of a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Mexico City last year.
Performers re-enacting the Battle of Puebla as part of a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Mexico City last year.

Even though General Zaragoza sadly passed away from an illness a few months later. French later won another battle and took over Mexico City, Cinco de Mayo still marks a significant moment of triumph for Mexico.

After the American Civil War ended in 1865, the United States decided to help Mexico by lending them money and providing guns to the Mexican Liberals. This support weakened France’s hold on Mexico, making it tough for them and the Mexican Conservatives to keep control.

In January 1866, Napoleon III, the leader of France, announced that French troops would leave Mexico. When France asked the United States to stay neutral, the American secretary of state, William H. Seward, said that France must leave Mexico without any conditions.

So, Cinco de Mayo is not just about a single battle, it’s also about the eventual victory of the Mexican Liberals with the help of the United States. Which leading to the withdrawal of French troops from Mexico. It’s a day to celebrate Mexican resilience and the bond between Mexico and the United States.

Cinco de Mayo, pronounced “Sinko day My-oh,” is more of a big deal in the United States than it is in Mexico. It’s a day when people celebrate Mexican-American culture. The celebrations actually started way back in 1862 in Columbia, California, and they’ve been going on every year since.


But why is it such a big deal in the U.S.? Well, in the 1980s, beer, wine, and tequila companies started advertising Cinco de Mayo, making it super popular. Nowadays, it’s a huge party day, almost like the Super Bowl for beer sales!

In Mexico, though, Cinco de Mayo is mostly a ceremonial day. They might have military parades or act out the battle, but it’s not as big of a deal as it is in the U.S. In Puebla, where the battle actually happened, they do have festivals and reenactments to remember it.

One thing to remember: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. Which is a really important holiday in Mexico celebrated on September 16th. That day marks the beginning of Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain way back in 1810.

Even though Cinco de Mayo started as a local celebration, it’s become a global thing. It’s featured in movies, TV shows, and all over social media. It’s a day to celebrate Mexican culture, food, and history, and people all around the world join in on the fun.


Background to the Battle of Puebla:
The roots of Cinco de Mayo stretch back to the aftermath of two important wars in Mexico’s history. The Mexican-American War of 1846–1848 and the Reform War of 1858–1861. The Reform War was essentially a civil war between two groups the Liberals. Who believed in keeping the church and state separate and supporting religious freedom, and the Conservatives. Who wanted a strong connection between the Catholic Church and the Mexican government. These conflicts drained Mexico’s finances nearly dry.

Then, on July 17, 1861, Mexican President Benito Juárez made a big decision. He declared a moratorium, which meant that Mexico wouldn’t be able to pay off its foreign debts for two years. This move didn’t sit well with France, Spain, and the United Kingdom. They got together in London and decided to team up. Their plan? Send naval forces to Veracruz, Mexico, and demand that Mexico pay up.

France, under the rule of Napoleon III at the time, saw this as an opportunity. Instead of just getting their money back, they wanted to set up a whole empire in Mexico that would benefit French interests. Meanwhile, Britain and Spain managed to negotiate with Mexico and back off peacefully.

The idea behind this French empire was to create what they called a “Latin America.” Where French influence would grow stronger and push out the influence of English-speaking countries in the Americas.


So, Cinco de Mayo isn’t just about a single battle. It’s tied to these complex political and economic events that shaped Mexico’s history and its relationship with other countries, especially France.

Girls enjoying in Cinco De Mayo.
Girls enjoying in Cinco De Mayo.

The French Invasion and Mexico’s Triumph:
In late 1861, a strong French fleet sailed to Veracruz, Mexico, and launched an attack. They landed a big French force and pushed President Juárez and his government into retreat. As the French army marched from Veracruz toward Mexico City. They faced tough resistance from Mexican troops near Puebla, particularly at the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe.

The French soldiers, numbering between 6,500 and 8,000 well equipped. While the Mexican army, with only about 4,000 soldiers, had fewer resources and weapons.

Then, on May 5, 1862, the Mexican forces achieved a remarkable victory over the French army. This triumph was a huge morale boost for the Mexican army and the entire nation. It helped foster a strong sense of unity and pride among the Mexican people. Which showing that they could stand up against a powerful foreign force. This victory at the Battle of Puebla became a symbol of Mexican resilience and patriotism.

The Aftermath and significance of the Battle of Puebla:
After the Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla, things took a turn. A year later, the French came back with a massive force of 30,000 troops. This time, they defeated the Mexican army, seized Mexico City, and made Emperor Maximilian I the ruler of Mexico. However, their triumph didn’t last long. In just three years, from 1864 to 1867, the French rule collapsed.


With the American Civil War ending in 1865, the United States stepped in to help Mexico kick out the French. Facing resistance from Mexican guerrilla fighters, the threat of war with Prussia, and the possibility of a clash with the United States, Napoleon III decided to retreat from Mexico starting in 1866.

The Mexican forces recaptured Mexico City, and Maximilian I, along with his Mexican generals Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía Camacho, captured and executed in Querétaro. On June 5, 1867, Benito Juárez returned to Mexico City and set up a new government.

The Battle of Puebla was a big deal for many reasons. First, the Mexican soldiers, vastly outnumbered by the French, showed remarkable bravery. Second, after the French intervention failed, it’s been argued that no European military force has invaded any country in the Americas since. Historian Justo Sierra even suggested that if Mexico hadn’t won at Puebla, France might have supported the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War, changing the course of history for the United States.

Why Untied States celebrate Cinco De Mayo?

Dancers perform in a Cinco De Mayo celebrations. Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA 2008.
Dancers perform in a Cinco De Mayo celebrations. Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA 2008.

According to a paper from the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, the modern celebration of Cinco de Mayo in the United States has its roots in California back in 1863. This was a response to the resistance against French rule in Mexico. In the gold country town of Columbia, which is now Columbia State Park. Mexican miners so thrilled by the news that they spontaneously fired off rifle shots. Which set off fireworks, sang patriotic songs, and even made impromptu speeches.

Even though Cinco de Mayo being celebrated in California since 1863, it mostly ignored in Mexico, as noted by a 2007 UCLA Newsroom article. However, it started to gain some attention in the United States during the 1940s, coinciding with the rise of the Chicano Movement. This movement aimed to empower Mexican Americans and celebrate their heritage.


The holiday gradually spread from California to the rest of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Cinco de Mayo really took off in popularity. This was when marketers, especially beer companies, saw an opportunity to promote the festive nature of the day. They capitalized on it, and soon, Cinco de Mayo became a widely celebrated occasion, especially in areas with large Mexican-American populations.

Over time, it evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, bringing people together to enjoy Mexican food, music, and traditions. Today, Cinco de Mayo is a colorful and lively holiday celebrated across the United States, honoring the rich cultural contributions of Mexican Americans.

A study published in the Journal of American Culture in 1998 revealed something fascinating: there were over 120 official celebrations of Cinco de Mayo happening across 21 different states in the United States. Then, in 2006, an update by José Alamillo, a professor of ethnic studies at Washington State University, found that the number had grown even more. Now, there were 150 or more official Cinco de Mayo events happening in the U.S.

One of the most famous of these celebrations is Fiesta Broadway in Los Angeles. At its peak in the 1990s, it touted as the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in the world. It used to draw in massive crowds of 500,000 people or more. However, in recent years, the attendance has significantly dropped.


These celebrations are a testament to the widespread popularity of Cinco de Mayo across the United States. They bring communities together to enjoy Mexican culture, music, food, and traditions. Despite changes in attendance over the years, Cinco de Mayo continues to be a vibrant and cherished celebration in many parts of the country.

On June 7, 2005, the United States Congress made a move. They issued what’s called a concurrent resolution. It basically asked the President of the United States to make a proclamation, calling on all Americans to celebrate Cinco de Mayo with the right ceremonies and activities. So, in response to that, many people hang up Cinco de Mayo banners, and schools hold special events to teach students about its history.

The celebrations are pretty cool. They showcase Mexican culture, especially through music and traditional dancing. For instance, you might see baile folklórico performances or mariachi bands playing at the Plaza del Pueblo de Los Ángeles, near Olvera Street.

But it’s not just about culture it’s also become a big deal for businesses. They’ve jumped on the Cinco de Mayo bandwagon, advertising Mexican stuff like drinks, food, and music. According to Nielsen, a company that tracks these things, Americans spent over $600 million on beer for Cinco de Mayo in 2013. That’s even more than what they spend for the Super Bowl or St. Patrick’s Day.


In a 2023 article, The Washington Post called Cinco de Mayo an “American holiday with Mexican roots.” It’s a reminder that while the holiday might have started in Mexico, it’s really taken on a life of its own in the United States, becoming a day when people from all backgrounds come together to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage.