Cinco de Mayo commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla between the victorious ragtag army of largely Mexican Indian soldiers against the invading French forces of Napoleon III.
Cinco de Mayo (“Fifth of May”) is an annual celebration. The date is observed to commemorate the Mexican Army’s victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza.
The Battle of Puebla was significant, both nationally and internationally, for several reasons. First, although considerably outnumbered, the Mexicans defeated a better-equipped French army.
The victory of the smaller Mexican force against a larger French force was a boost to morale for the Mexicans. This battle was significant in that the 4,000 Mexican soldiers were greatly outnumbered by the well-equipped French army of 8,000 that had not been defeated for almost 50 years.
But a year after the battle, a larger French force defeated Zaragoza at the Second Battle of Puebla, and Mexico City soon fell to the invaders.
On May 9, 1862, President Juárez declared that the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla would be a national holiday regarded as “Battle of Puebla Day” or “Battle of Cinco de Mayo”.
Today, the commemoration of the battle is not observed as a national holiday in Mexico (i.e. not a statutory holiday). However, all public schools are closed nationwide in Mexico on May 5. The day is an official holiday in the State of Puebla, where the battle took place, and also a full holiday (no work) in the neighboring State of Veracruz.
The commemoration of the battle continues to be mostly ceremonial, such as through military parades or battle reenactments.
In Mexico City, the military commemoration is occasionally held at the Campo Marte. Thousands of Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo by dancing through the streets of Mexico City and reenacting the historic Battle of Puebla.
The city of Puebla marks the event with an arts festival, a festival of local cuisine, and re-enactments of the battle.
Cinco de Mayo has its roots in the Second French intervention in Mexico, which took place in the aftermath of the 1846–48 Mexican–American War and the 1858–61 Reform War.
The Reform War was a civil war that pitted Liberals (who believed in the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion) against Conservatives (who favored a tight bond between the Catholic Church and the Mexican state). These wars nearly bankrupted the Mexican Treasury.
On July 17, 1861, Mexican President Benito Juárez issued a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years. In response, Britain, France, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand reimbursement.
Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew, but France, at the time ruled by Napoleon III, decided to use the opportunity to establish an empire in Mexico that would favor French interests, the Second Mexican Empire.
The empire was part of an envisioned “Latin America” that would rebuild French influence in the American continent and exclude Anglophone American territories.
Late in 1861, a well-armed French fleet attacked Veracruz, landing a large French force and driving President Juárez and his government into retreat.
Moving on from Veracruz towards Mexico City, the French army encountered heavy resistance from the Mexicans close to Puebla, at the Mexican forts of Loreto and Guadalupe.
The French army of 8,000 attacked the poorly equipped Mexican army of 4,000. On May 5, 1862, the Mexicans decisively defeated the French army. The victory represented a significant morale boost to the Mexican army and the Mexican people at large and helped establish a sense of national unity and patriotism.
The Mexican victory, however, was short-lived. A year later, with 30,000 troops, the French were able to defeat the Mexican army, capture Mexico City, and install Emperor Maximilian I as ruler of Mexico.
The French victory was itself short-lived, lasting only three years, from 1864 to 1867. By 1865, with the American Civil War now over, the U.S. began to provide more political and military assistance to Mexico to expel the French.
Upon the conclusion of the American Civil War, Napoleon III, facing a persistent Mexican guerilla resistance, the threat of war with Prussia, and the prospect of a serious scrap with the United States retreated from Mexico starting in 1866.
The Mexicans recaptured Mexico City, and Maximilian I was apprehended and executed, along with his Mexican generals Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía Camacho in Cerro de las Campanas, Querétaro.
On June 5, 1867, Benito Juárez finally entered Mexico City where he installed a new government and reorganized his administration.