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Cinco de Mayo (Spanish for "fifth of May") is a celebration held on May 5. It is celebrated in the United States and in Mexico, primarily in the state of Puebla,[note 1] where the holiday is called El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (English: The Day of the Battle of Puebla). Mexican Americans also often see the day as a source of pride, one way they can honor their ethnicity is to celebrate this day.
1901 poster for Cinco de Mayo: "May 5, 1862 and the siege of Puebla"
Events leading to the Battle of Puebla
Cinco de Mayo has its roots in the French occupation of Mexico, which took place in the aftermath of the Mexican–American War of 1846–48 and the 1858–61 Reform War. The Reform War was a civil war and it pitted Liberals (who believed in separation of church and state and freedom of religion) against the Conservatives (who favored a tight bond between the Roman Catholic Church and the Mexican State).  These wars left the Mexican Treasury nearly bankrupt. 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, France, Britain, 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 a Latin empire in Mexico that would favor French interests, the Second Mexican Empire.
Late in 1861, a well-armed French fleet stormed 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 8,000-strong French army[note 2] attacked the much smaller and poorly equipped Mexican army of 4,500.[note 3] Yet, on May 5, 1862, the Mexicans managed to decisively crush the French army, then considered "the premier army in the world".
The victory represented a significant morale boost to the Mexican army and the Mexican people at large. In the description of The History Channel, "Although not a major strategic win in the overall war against the French, Zaragoza's success at Puebla represented a great symbolic victory for the Mexican government and bolstered the resistance movement." As Time magazine remarked, "The Puebla victory came to symbolize unity and pride for what seemed like a Mexican David defeating a French Goliath." It helped establish a much-needed sense of national unity and patriotism.
Events after the battle
The Mexican victory, however, was short-lived. A year later, with thirty thousand 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 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 U.S. 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 Miramón and Mejía, in the Cerro de las Campanas, Querétaro. "On June 5, 1867, Benito Juarez finally entered Mexico City where he installed a legitimate government and reorganized his administration."
The Battle of Puebla was important for at least two reasons. First, although considerably outnumbered, the Mexicans defeated a much better-equipped French army. "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." [note 4] Second, since the Battle of Puebla, no country in the Americas has subsequently been invaded by any other European military force.[note 5]
Donald W. Miles states, "At the time, there were fears in the United States that the French would use Mexico as a base to back the Confederacy, so President Lincoln and his Secretary of State went out of their way to appear 'neutral' in the Mexican situation. They did not want to take on the French and the Confederates at the same time". Dr. Miles goes on to explain that "Napoleon III had hesitated to take on the United States directly, but now the news of the Civil War changed everything". It meant that the Americans would be occupied with their Civil War for some time. Upon hearing the Spaniards and the British had sailed off to grab the customs house in Veracruz to start collecting their duties, Napoleon decided he would not only send the French navy, but would also start looking for someone to place as emperor in Mexico. He would then use Mexico as a base to help the Confederates win their war against the United States. Napoleon saw this as an opportunity not to be missed.
Historian Justo Sierra has written in his Political Evolution of the Mexican People, that had Mexico not defeated the French in Puebla on May 5, 1862, France would have gone to the aid of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War and the United States' destiny could have been very different.
Ignacio Gonzalez wrote, "Some scholars, including José Antonio Burciaga, believe that had the French defeated México at Puebla, France would have aided the South in the American Civil War in order to free Southern ports of the Union Blockade. During this time, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was enjoying success, and French intervention could have had an impact on the Civil War."
According to a paper published by the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture about the origin of the observance of Cinco de Mayo in the United States, the modern American focus on that day first started in California in the 1860s in response to the resistance to French rule in Mexico. "Far up in the gold country town of Columbia (now Columbia State Park) Mexican miners were so overjoyed at the news that they spontaneously fired off rifles shots and fireworks, sang patriotic songs and made impromptu speeches." A 2007 UCLA Newsroom article notes that "The holiday, which has been celebrated in California continuously since 1863, is virtually ignored in Mexico."TIME magazine reports that "Cinco de Mayo started to come into vogue in 1940s America during the rise of the Chicano movement." The holiday crossed over from California into the rest of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s but didn't gain popularity until the 1980s when marketers, especially beer companies, capitalized on the celebratory nature of the day and began to promote it. It grew in popularity and evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, first in areas with large Mexican-American populations, like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.
In a 1998 study in the Journal of American Culture it was reported that there were more than 120 official U.S. celebrations of Cinco de Mayo, and they could be found in 21 different states. An update in 2006 found that the number of official Cinco de Mayo events was 150 or more, according to José Alamillo, professor of ethnic studies at Washington State University in Pullman, who has studied the cultural impact of Cinco de Mayo north of the border.
In the United States Cinco de Mayo has taken on a significance beyond that in Mexico. On June 7, 2005, the U.S. Congress issued a Concurrent Resolution calling on the President of the United States to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate ceremonies and activities. To celebrate, many display Cinco de Mayo banners while school districts hold special events to educate pupils about its historical significance. Special events and celebrations highlight Mexican culture, especially in its music and regional dancing. Examples include baile folklórico and mariachi demonstrations held annually at the Plaza del Pueblo de Los Angeles, near Olvera Street. Commercial interests in the United States have capitalized on the celebration, advertising Mexican products and services, with an emphasis on beverages, foods, and music.
On 9 May 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".
Although Mexican citizens feel very proud of the meaning of the Anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, today it is not observed as a national holiday in Mexico. However, all public schools are closed nation-wide 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.
^Other sources give the size of the French force as 6,500. Read Here
^According to Mexico's National Institute of Historical Studies on the Mexican Revolution the Mexican force consisted of 4,802 soldiers.Read Here And Peter Hicks of the French Fondation Napoléon and other French sources state the size of the Mexican force was 12,000 men. Read here and Read here. Hayes-Batista clarifies on page 60 of his El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition that after the smaller Mexican force had defeated the French on May 5, they received reinforcements on May 6 and 7 to the tune of 12,000 additional Mexican soldiers.
^It has been pointed out that, contrary to reports on PBS and in Philadelphia's The Bulletin, the French were in fact considered to have been defeated by the Russians at the Siege of Petropavlovsk in 1854.
^The statement in The Bulletin is, "This was the last time any army from another continent invaded the Americas." Note it says "invaded", and not "attacked." Thus, since Cinco de Mayo no army from another continent has invaded the Americas. The War of the Falklands War, for example, was fought in the Americas but the Islands were invaded by a military from the Americas (the Argentine military). They were subsequently attacked (not invaded) by the UK. Another example, Pearl Harbor, experienced an attack, not an invasion by the Japanese. The only possible exception to the Cinco de Mayo claim above might be the brief occupation/invasion of two of the Alaskan Aleutian Islands by the Japanese military during WWII. This event, however, was so insignificant as to be virtually negligible: the islands invaded had a total population of 12 Americans and some 45 natives, the invasion was short-lived, and the battle fought there had no notoriety other than the psychological effect on the Americans that the Japanese had invaded American territory again (Alaska was not yet a full-fledged state). In short, the military importance of these small, frozen pieces of land was nowhere comparable to the superior military significance of the Battle of Puebla.
^David E. Hayes-Bautista. El Cinco de Mayo: an American tradition. Page 11. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 2012. ISBN 978-0-520-27213-2. 293 pages.
^Robert L. Bidwell (Apr 1971). "The Political Evolution of the Mexican People. By Justo Sierra. Translated by Charles Ramsdell. Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press. 1969.". Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs (Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami) 13 (2): 306–308. JSTOR174689.
^Congressional Record - House. Page 7488. 9 May 2001. Retrieved 8 May 2013. Note that contrary to most other sources, this source states the date Juarez declared Cinco de Mayo to be a national holiday was 8 September 1862.
(Federal) = Federal holidays, (State) = State holidays, (Religious) = Religious holidays, (Week) = Weeklong holidays, (Month) = Monthlong holidays, (36) = Title 36 Observances and Ceremonies Bolded text indicates major holidays that are commonly celebrated by Americans, which often represents the major celebration of the month.