It’s Cinco de Mayo, or the fifth day of the fifth month and in the state of Puebla, Mexico, the people are celebrating the symbolic victory of their small and poorly outfitted Mexican miliita over Napoleon III’s mighty French army in 1862.
Cinco de Mayo is not to be confused with Mexico’s Independence Day. No, no … Mexico’s Independence Day is celebrated on September 16 to remember that day in 1810 when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a priest in the town of Dolores Hidalgo rang his church bells and exhorted the local tribes to “recover from the hated Spaniards the land stolen from your forefathers …”
Padre Hidalgo was hanged for his pains in 1811, was succeeded by Padre Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon who was shot by a firing squad for his dissidence in 1815. But Morelos’ army continued his fight against the oppressors, and in 1821, Mexico finally broke free from Spanish rule after more than 300 years.
But the young nation’s troubles were far from over – internal conflict and wars including the Mexican-American War and the Mexican Civil War, left Mexico financially ruined. When President Benito Juárez stopped paying back the nation’s loans to European governments, France, Britain and Spain occupied Veracruz to collect Mexican debt. After negotiations, Britain and Spain withdrew from Mexico, but France, ruled by Napoleon III, decided the time was right to carve out its empire in the region. A French fleet landed in Veracruz and forced President Juárez and his govern
ment to flee to Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico. The French declared Maximilian I of Austria, a distant relative of Napoleon III, as emperor of Mexico.
Certain of a swift victory, 6,000 French troops set out to attack Puebla, President Juárez had managed to gather a rag-tag militia of 2,000 loyal men and led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, the outnumbered and underprepared Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the French assault. On May 5, 1862, the French troops with heavy artillery led an assault on Puebla from the north.
The battle raged from daybreak to early evening. At day end the French had lost nearly 500 soldiers and decided to retreat while on the Mexican side, less than 100 militiamen had been killed.
It was a small victory for the Mexicans but it bolstered their spirits. In 1864 the forces of President Juárez captured and executed Ferdinand Maximilian, emperor of Mexico by Napoleon, and with help from President Abraham Lincoln of the United States, the French finally withdrew from Mexico.
The Mexican victory over the French on May 5, 1862 on the fields of Pueblo is celebrated ever since as Cinco de Mayo, and that’s why Mexican culture is celebrated in several cities in America with a Mexican heritage every year on the fifth day of May.