cinco de mayo

Inherently festive, a Mexican calendar is littered with celebrations and holidays. One such holiday that falls on the 5th of May every year is Cinco De Mayo. Cinco De Mayo primarily commemorates the Mexican army’s astounding victory over the French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. However it is wrongly assumed in many quarters that Cinco De Mayo is a celebration of Mexico’s independence , which actually however falls on September 16th – the true Mexican Independence Day


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Historical Background

The Cinco De Mayo is a cause of great national pride for the Mexicans as a impoverished , puny ragtag army of Mexican militia, barely four and a half thousand strong, was able to vanquish the mighty French army, twice as strong, thereby halting a French invasion of Mexico.

The Battle at Puebla occurred during a violent and chaotic era in Mexico’s history. After a bloody and protracted struggle, Mexico had just wrested its independence from the Spanish clutches in 1822. The national economy was in tatters following a series of internal strife and political takeovers as well as a debilitating war with America.

As the economy continued to totter, Mexico’s debt burden skyrocketed.  Countries like Britain, Spain and France who were its principal lenders were becoming increasingly vociferous in demanding repayment. The French, very eager to expand its sphere of influence, decided to take punitive actions, when Mexico reneged on its debt commitments. France decided to send an invasive force of nearly eight thousand troops, with the sole intention of annexing Mexico and anointing Napoleon III’s relative. Archduke Maximilian of Austria, as its de facto ruler.

The conquering force invaded the Gulf of Mexico and started marching ominously towards the Mexico City. America which was mired in its own bloody civil war, was unable to extend any assistance to its neighbours . The invasive force marched, undeterred, towards Mexico city. However, it was near Puebla, at the Mexican forts of Loreto and Gudalpe, the French army for the first time,encountered stiff resistance. Led by a courageous and tactically brilliant Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, a poorly equipped Mexican army was able to defeat a much larger and better provisioned French force, consequently stopping the invasion.

It was a glorious chapter and monumental moment for Mexican patriots and Mexican pride and the entire country rose up in jubilation. However, such nationwide mirth proved to be extremely short lived,  as the bullish French send a second invasive force of nearly 30,000 to undo the failures of its predecessor. This time Mexico fell and Maximilian was soon appointed as its leader in 1864.

However his reign did not last for too long. In 1867, the Mexicans with much needed help from America, was able to oust the French. Maximilian was duly executed and his bullet riddled shirt still adorns the museum at Chalptec Castle near Mexico City.

Cinco De Mayo was an important event in Mexico’s history as it helped at that time in inculcating much needed national pride and a spirit of unity among several disparate factions in the country


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Current Day Scenario-

Despite its historical significance, Cinco De Mayo for most part has remained largely a regional holidayin Mexico, which is vigorously celebrated in and around the state of Puebla. It has never received the stamp of a national holiday, although some other regions of late, have also taken to it with varying degree of enthusiasm, but nothing like what one can witness in Puebla.

It is therefore surprising to witness the levels of interest that this particular holiday garners  in many parts of America. Mexicans quip all the time that Cinco De Mayo has a become a more popular custom in US than in Mexico itself. One can witness widespread celebrations on 5th of May, especially along US Mexico border or in regions with a strong Hispanic contingent. In these regions, this holiday is a celebration of Mexican food, wine and customs – anything that is unique to Mexico. The festivities continue for nearly a week, culminating on 5th of May, with parades, concerts and a general air of merriment comprising of Mexican food , dance and music.