Cinco de Mayo: Why it’s celebrated on both sides of the US/Mexico border

Dan Weinbaum
May 03, 2019 - 7:38 am

Emma McIntyre - Getty Images Entertainment

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Mexican Independence Day is celebrated on September 16, so why is May 5 such a big deal in the United States?

Thousands of Mexican restaurants and other businesses offer specials on Cinco de Mayo, which confuses a lot of Americans. Mexican Independence Day observes the start of the "cry of independence," a revolt against Spain in 1810. The colorful history of Cinco de Mayo dates back to 1862, when the United States was embroiled in its Civil War.

France, which was ruled by Emperor Napoleon III, wanted to make a colony of Mexico, which had gone bankrupt after decades of internal conflict following its independence from the Spanish. Mexico suspended payments to European banks in 1860, which prompted Spain, France and Great Britain to send troops to collect debts.

London and Paris cuts deals with the Mexicans, but France sought a takeover, during which it would trade guns to the American Confederates in exchange for southern cotton, a valuable comodity in Europe.

France occupied Mexico, and on May 5, 1862, an overwhelming force of French soldiers met on the battlefield against the outnumbered Mexicans in Puebla. Mexico was victorious over the French, who were so stunned, they had to delay plans for conquest.

That interruption gave President Abraham Lincoln and the Union time to win more victories in the Civil War. By the time France recovered, it was too late to help the Confederacy.

The Mexican victory at Puebla on Cinco de Mayo rippled across the country and into the 12-year-old state of California. Historians say California Latinos at that time were ardent supporters of the Union, and they understood the connection between the victory at Puebla and the American Civil War. 

Celebrations of Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. have occurred ever since.

Four days after the Battle of Puebla, Mexican President Benito Juárez declared the anniversary would be a national holiday, but today, Cinco de Mayo is not a statutory holiday in Mexico.   

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