Cinco de Mayo: An American celebration for a Mexican victory

May 5, 2011

Cinco de MayoIs Cinco de Mayo a Mexican holiday?

Actually, in Mexico, it isn’t a federal holiday. It isn’t even widely celebrated at a national level, and its celebration is mainly limited to the state of Puebla.

Even where it’s observed, the holiday is not celebrated with parties and festivities, but rather with historical reenactments.

By contrast, there are at least 150 official U.S. celebrations of Cinco de Mayo. In 2005, U.S. Congress issued a Concurrent Resolution calling on the President to issue a proclamation “calling upon the people of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”

So what does Cinco de Mayo commemorate that causes more celebration in the U.S. than in Mexico?

Strangely enough, a Mexican military victory over the French.

The victory, Mexican army’s unlikely defeat of French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, was a relatively short-lived one: Mexican forces fell to the French just over a year later.

However, the timing of the victory is what made it so important; not necessarily to Mexicans living in Mexico at the time, but rather to Mexican Americans living in California.

For those familiar with U.S. history, the victory came during the first half of the U.S. Civil War, at which point the war wasn’t going well for the Union.

For Mexican-Americans living in California, a Union state, the news of a victory for their native Mexico was cause for celebration, especially after a string of defeats for Union forces.

The underdog victory for Mexico ignited spontaneous celebrations in California.

The victory had additional significance for Mexican-Americans – indeed for all Americans – beyond a simple morale boost.

As history buffs are aware, the Confederacy was petitioning foreign nations, namely Britain and France, for aid.

France invaded Mexico in an effort to gain North American territories.

To this end, it hoped to weaken the United States by providing assistance to the Confederacy, thereby weakening the continent’s dominant power and opening conditions for a land grab.

Humiliated by the defeat, France returned in March 1863, and the second Battle of Puebla commenced.

Mexican-Americans in California, with the memory of Mexico’s last victory in Puebla still fresh in their minds, watched the battle from afar with great interest.

On the anniversary of the first victory, Puebla still hadn’t fallen to the French, leaving those in California another cause for celebration, and allowing May 5 to remain a day of victory celebration.

And while Puebla eventually fell several weeks later, the first victory effectively cut off French intervention from the Civil War: the Battle of Gettysburg struck a critical blow to Confederate forces less than two months after the French took Puebla, tipping the war strongly in favor of the Union.

From then on, the holiday spread and gained popularity (helped in no small part by beer and alcohol companies seeking to use the holiday to increase sales), until it became the national celebration that it is today.

In between drinks, though, reflect on the fact Cinco de Mayo is truly an American holiday: for although the military victory was Mexico’s, the spoils of that victory belong to the U.S., which allowed it to become the powerful, united force it is today.