The History Behind the Holiday: Cinco de Mayo

The mention of Cinco de Mayo brings to mind bright colors, refreshing alcoholic drinks, and of course a celebration of the Mexican people. However, while America loves any reason to celebrate, the true meaning and purpose of celebrating the “Fifth of May” is often lost beneath fluttering pinatas and the glitters of alcohol-fueled parties. But fear not, because of Popular Pittsburgh’s never-ending thirst for knowledge, we’ve got the history behind this wonderful holiday.

In terms of the historical reason we celebrate Cinco de Mayo, the origins of this holiday can be traced back to May 5th, 1862 when Mexican armies defeated one of the world’s then-most powerful armies, the French, who were under the rule of Napoleon III. The French invasion of Mexico was triggered by Mexico’s declaration that their payments of foreign debts would be delayed for a time. That news that did not please European countries. However, upon invasion by the English, Spanish, and French, Mexico valiantly defended their country and was immediately able to expel England and Spain from their lands. Left with one army to defeat (the French), Mexico bravely prepared to fight. And on May 5th, 1862, under the wise leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza, Mexican troops defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla. This heroic group of soldiers and their general have since been celebrated every year, as reminder of the strength and pride of the Mexican people. Although Mexico would go on to lose the war and end up under the rule of France until 1867, the Battle of Puebla is remembered and celebrated as a great marker of the spirit of Mexico: outnumbered 2 to 1 and less well equipped, Mexico prevailed. It’s exactly that spirit that eventually won them their freedom, similar to the spirit that won America its freedom from Britain.

Understanding why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated is important. Although many, if not most, believe that the Fifth of May is Mexico’s independence day, that is false. In 1862, Mexico was already a nation, as they had begun their battle for independence from Spain in 1810, when Catholic Priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued his Grito de Dolores (“Cry of Dolores”) by ringing a church bell and signaling the call to arms to start the fight for independence. Mexico won that war in 1821.

Today, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated all across America in varying degrees. Restaurants and bars are typically stocked and ready to party with endless Margarita. Many cities host parades. In fact, the largest Cinco de Mayo parade is in Los Angeles, complete with floats, costumes and dancers.

Overall, whether you are hitting up your local watering hole or chowing down on some traditional Mexican food, make sure to remember the true history behind the holiday and tip your sombrero in respect to the the brave soldiers who put this holiday on the calendar and saved Mexico.

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