10 Things You Never Knew About Cinco De Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is seen by many Americans as the perfect excuse to get drunk with your friends and enjoy some tacos. And for lots of us, that’s a perfectly fine reason to have a holiday. After all, don’t we do similar things with July 4th, St. Patrick’s Day, and pretty much any long holiday weekend that comes up? Especially for spring and summer holidays, good weather and an excuse to hang out with pals are all we need to have a little fun!

But the truth is that Cinco de Mayo is actually a fascinating and important holiday even beyond all the parties that go down in the modern age. In this list, we’ll explore ten fascinating facts about Cinco de Mayo that are far beyond what most of us know about the Mexican national holiday. These historical tidbits prove it’s a very important, serious, and even somber day for Mexico and its people. Let’s dive in!

Related: Top 10 Haunting Facts Surrounding The US-Mexico Border

10 Fighting off the French

You might assume the Mexicans were fighting off the Americans in the battle that led to Cinco de Mayo—the two countries had fought a war in the 1840s, after all—but actually, you’d be wrong. It was the French! In 1861, French, English, and Spanish troops invaded Mexico after it said it was going to stop paying its foreign debts. By the spring of 1862, the English and Spanish decided to get out of there, but the French stuck around.

Wealthy Mexican landowners wanted the French to stay and fight, and the French were hoping to establish a monarchy in Mexico with Maximilian of Austria as the powerful king. Not for nothing, the French saw this as an opportunity to curb the United States’ power in North America. And since the U.S. was embroiled in its own Civil War at that time, France thought this monarchy idea just might work.

By early May, the French were moving toward Mexico City. General Charles Latrille de Lorencez led more than 6,000 French troops through the nearby city of Puebla when they came upon a much smaller Mexican force. Led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, less than 2,000 Mexican troops tried to make a last stand against the French at what later became known as the Battle of Puebla.

And they did! The stand put forth under Mexican President Benito Juarez, these 2,000 men amazingly managed to hold off the French beginning on May 5, 1862. And from that underdog story, a holiday was born…[1]

9 Still, It Took a While to Matter

Zaragoza’s win in Puebla against the French was mighty important for the 2,000 men who vanquished an army more than three times their size. But at the time, it wasn’t seen as a strategic battle within the war against France. And other Mexican generals and military strategists didn’t think much of it—other than being happy Puebla came down as a victory for their side.

The French were moving so aggressively that President Juarez and his underlings had a million proverbial fires to put out and no time to get hung up on any one win. Heck, even the French didn’t see their loss at Puebla as significant. It was far from debilitating, especially considering the French military might relative to the mostly indigenous peasants who were fighting for Mexico. And the French didn’t even leave Mexico for another five years!

If Puebla was the beginning of the end for France’s interests in North America, well, that end took a long, long, long time to come. The French cared not for Puebla after it happened and were instead content to keep fighting on other fronts. It was only a few years later that Mexican nationals proudly began to look back on what happened at Puebla. And they honored it by remembering the day that battle began![2]

8 France Finally Withdraws

As we mentioned, it took the French a long time to finally back away from the monarchist hopes in Mexico. They got in right when the American Civil War began in 1861, which was perfect timing. The Americans were concerned about significant internal issues and didn’t have the bandwidth to help out their neighbors to the south.

Abraham Lincoln and his successors weren’t crazy about France being so intimately involved in North America—and trying to aggressively topple the Mexican regime and install their puppet in its place. But there wasn’t much the U.S. could do while their own Civil War was raging stateside. Then, time passed. (Doesn’t it always?)

By 1865, the American Civil War was winding down, and the French still hadn’t been able to seize Mexico and install Maximilian of Austria as its new king by force. The Americans could suddenly turn far more attention to their neighbors to the south, and that’s exactly what they did.

With the United States now providing logistical and military support, the Mexicans were suddenly rejuvenated. And through backchannels, the U.S. moved to put political pressure on the French to leave Mexico once and for all. The combination finally came true in 1867, and the French withdrew from Mexico for good.[3]

7 Maximilian’s Grisly Demise

Maximilian of Austria’s run as the supposed Emperor of Mexico only lasted three years—and it was a hotly contested three years. In 1864, after the French had already been defeated at the Battle of Puebla that would later birth the beginnings of Cinco de Mayo, Maximilian took his place on the “throne.”

France’s Napoleon III appointed the Austrian Archduke as Mexico’s emperor. Of course, there was just one problem: the Mexican people really, really didn’t want that. At all. They fought tooth and nail for the next several years until, as we just learned, the French were forced to withdraw in 1867.

Their withdrawal didn’t include Maximilian, though. The Mexicans were content to let the French out of the country so long as they promised to never return, but Maximilian was not granted that same decent fate. In June of 1867, Mexican forces captured Maximilian. They had him summarily executed near Cerro de las Campanas, just outside the city of Quéretaro. That, they hoped, would send a sign to any future would-be kings and emperors coming from abroad: stay the heck out of Mexico![4]

6 Thanks, Los Angeles

As we’ve already learned, Cinco de Mayo wasn’t widespread immediately across Mexico. And while President Benito Juarez did try to quickly move to make the stand at Puebla in 1862 into a nationally galvanizing moment, most Mexicans didn’t really catch on. That is, most Mexicans in Mexico.

However, up in the Los Angeles area, Mexican Americans who had immigrated north found pride and inspiration in the Battle of Puebla. It wasn’t immediate since news traveled quite a bit slower back then than it does nowadays. Still, Los Angeles-area Mexican Americans were the ones who really pushed May 5th as an important date.

Broadly, it makes sense. These Mexican immigrants were far from their homes in Puebla, Mexico City, and other Mexican towns hundreds of miles to the south. They missed their culture and their communities, and they were worried about their homeland and the onslaught by the French. The Battle of Puebla was a pivot point for them.

Reading about it in Spanish-language newspapers months after it happened, Los Angeles’s Mexican immigrants rushed to form political organizations and create rallies for their cause. They raised tons of money and then sent it home to Mexico with the express purpose of President Juarez using it to fight off the French. Had it not been for Los Angeles’s then-small Mexican population, Cinco de Mayo might not have become what we know it as today.[5]

5 Not a Full Holiday

In the modern age, Mexicans typically celebrate Cinco de Mayo with political speeches and historical words of inspiration. Parades and marches are common in some areas of the country. And occasionally, Mexican history buffs will re-enact the Battle of Puebla to honor the people who came before them.

But interestingly, all that pretty much only takes place in Puebla. Outside that mountainous state, there isn’t a ton of attention paid to Cinco de Mayo across the rest of Mexico. Unlike the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, or Labor Day in the United States, the nation of Mexico doesn’t shut down when Cinco de Mayo rolls around.

Banks, stores, and office buildings remain open on that day just like they would on any other across the calendar. It is not a federal holiday. And since the rest of Mexico’s states mostly don’t observe the tradition besides those in Puebla, the historic day really isn’t seen as that big of a deal across the nation.

Of course, it’s celebrated as a fun drinking holiday quite a bit here in the U.S. And Mexican-Americans have certainly embraced it in recent years just like they did more than 160 years ago. But down in Mexico, it’s just another normal day to get through and move on.[6]

4 Morphed to More in America

Even though Cinco De Mayo is not that big of a deal in Mexico, it’s a major holiday in the United States. Sure, we’ve joked several times already in the post about using it as an excuse to drink some cervezas, and there certainly is plenty of that going around. However, Mexican-American immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren have long seen Cinco de Mayo as an opportunity to connect with their homeland and their ancestral culture and honor where they came from.

That didn’t start by accident, either. Mexican immigrants in the United States were feeling isolated both by the language they spoke and their cultural uniqueness in the early 20th century. By the 1950s and 1960s, Chicano activists saw that isolation as a major problem and pushed for markers that could promote their cultural identity. Cinco de Mayo quickly rose as the perfect one.

It was a proud holiday that honored an objectively inspirational Mexican event. And, as we’ve learned, its celebratory roots actually really kicked up in Los Angeles about 100 years before. So Chicano activists in the American southwest began kicking up full-scale awareness for the holiday in the turbulent ’60s, and it became a thing. From there, well, the rest is history.[7]

3 Don’t Get It Confused, Though

You hopefully know by now, having read this entire list, that the Battle of Puebla in 1862 was NOT a battle for Mexican independence. That had already happened decades before—in 1810, to be exact. And even though Cinco de Mayo may be the most Americanized and popularized version of all Mexican holidays, it has nothing to do with Mexico’s actual Independence Day. That comes in a completely different month and came about to commemorate a very different reason.

Every year, Mexican Independence Day is celebrated on September 16. Unlike Cinco de Mayo, that day is a federal holiday across all of Mexico, and it’s taken very seriously by Mexican residents across their great nation. The September 16 date honors the Grito de Dolores, which occurred in the city of Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, in 1810.

That year, Mexican insurgents called themselves to arms to throw out the oppressive Spanish colonial government all across the would-be nation. On September 16, 1810, revolutionary fighter-slash-priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costillas let out the infamous “Grito de Dolores,” calling for Mexican independence. The fight was long and hard, but Mexico (obviously) won, and now, their independence day celebrates him and the battle more than 200 years later.[8]

2 Beer, Beer, Beer!

Even after all the hard work Chicano activists did to promote Cinco de Mayo in the American Southwest throughout the 1960s and afterward, it was still a very minor holiday. Mexican-Americans celebrated it, or at least honored it, as a way to harken back to their heritage. But it wasn’t a be-all and end-all celebration like it is now. In fact, it was a pretty low-key event for decades after that until the 1980s.

In that age, beer companies got hold of Cinco de Mayo and flipped it from a quiet Mexican day of observance to a bawdy, raucous American holiday full of beer and parties. Major beer brands like Anheuser-Busch and Miller Company took to their marketing reps and asked them to carve out a new niche in the Hispanic segment of buyers.

Recognizing rightly that the Hispanic population was surging in the U.S. at the time and that it would continue to rise, beer companies wanted to get in on the action. The best way, they figured, was to honor some broadly Hispanic cultural touchstones—and so, Cinco de Mayo popped up at the top of the list.

Through shrewd marketing campaigns across the 1980s, beers like Corona became synonymous with not only Mexican and Mexican-American culture but also Cinco de Mayo itself. The campaigns worked, too, because beer companies still report profitable sales periods leading up to May 5th every year. In turn, many Americans—whether they have any Mexican heritage in their blood or not—use the day to eat, drink, and be merry. If only General Zaragoza could see them now…[9]

1 Pushed for Political Purposes

By now, we’ve learned that Cinco de Mayo is more of a Mexican-American (Okay, just an American) holiday than it is a full Mexican one. In its inception, its spread, and its present-day situation, Cinco de Mayo is a much bigger deal stateside than south of the border. American politicians have picked up on this fact, too.

Over the years—and especially in the last several decades—American political leaders have pushed into the Latino community with inroads made around Cinco de Mayo as a way to foster connection. Those pushes have come across party lines, too, suggesting all American politicians want a shot at the Latino voting bloc.

Back in his time in the White House, President George W. Bush used Cinco de Mayo as an opportunity to tout immigration reform for migrants coming to the U.S. from Spanish-speaking nations in Central and South America. Then, President Barack Obama also pushed an immigration reform platform on Cinco de Mayo. He did so by inviting Mexican-American and Latino celebrities to the White House along with Mexican embassy officials and other political leaders.

And not to be outdone, President Donald Trump had VP Mike Pence host the official White House Cinco de Mayo celebration in 2017 and after that, as well. It makes sense; Cinco de Mayo has largely been co-opted by American interests both culturally and economically, so why wouldn’t it become a political football, too?[10]

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