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What does Cinco de Mayo commemorate?

Cinco de Mayo takes place on 5 May each year in celebration of Mexican heritage, culture and food. But what does it commemorate, and why is it a bigger celebration in the United States? Historian Edward Shawcross explains…

Dancers perform in a Cinco de Mayo celebration
Published: May 3, 2022 at 11:44 am
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Sometimes confused with Mexico’s Independence Day (which is on 16 September), Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican army’s victory over invading French troops at the battle of Puebla on 5 May 1862. Despite it having been a significant moment in Mexican history, Cinco de Mayo is not a national holiday in Mexico. In fact, its biggest celebrations take place in the United States.

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This is because people of Mexican heritage in California were some of the first to formalise commemorations of this epic victory over foreign invaders. In 1862, the French emperor Napoleon III sent soldiers to support Mexican conservatives. Recently defeated in civil war, these men wanted to overthrow the liberal, democratically elected president, Benito Juárez, and replace him with a European emperor: Habsburg archduke Ferdinand Maximilian.

To achieve this, the French army needed to occupy Mexico City. The French commander in chief of the expeditionary force, Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez, was arrogantly confident: “We have over the Mexicans such superiority of race, organisation, discipline, [and] morality . . . that now at the head of 6,000 soldiers I am the master of Mexico”. In May 1862, his army deployed before Puebla, Mexico’s second city and key point on the route to the capital.

Artist Patricio Ramos Ortega's depiction of the battle of Puebla
Artist Patricio Ramos Ortega's depiction of the battle of Puebla, which took place on 5 May 1862 near the city of Puebla during the French intervention in Mexico. (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

General Ignacio Zaragoza commanded the Mexican force facing the invaders. He had roughly the same number of men as Lorencez, but many were poorly trained and badly equipped, with some local indigenous volunteers having nothing but machetes to fight with.

Despite this, Zaragoza’s men achieved an astonishing victory. But the Mexican army had only won a single battle; it would take five years to win the war. The French seized Mexico City in 1863, setting up the Second Mexican Empire, which was finally defeated with the execution of its emperor, Maximilian, in June 1867.

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Why is the battle of Puebla commemorated?

Why, then, is the battle of Puebla fought on 5 May 1862 still commemorated today? This is because some of the first formal celebrations of the battle were in the United States. California, a Mexican territory seceded to Washington in 1848, took the lead. In 1863, Spanish speakers there – a mixture of a longstanding community, second-generation children, and recent migrants – organised public celebrations of Cinco de Mayo to remember their heritage and show support for Benito Juárez.

Successive movements of Mexican and Latin American migration to the United States then institutionalised the day in a way that never happened in Mexico. To this day, the biggest Cinco de Mayo celebrations take place in Los Angeles, Chicago and San Diego. It was in those cities that Spanish-speaking communities adopted and adapted Cinco de Mayo. The battle is remembered, but the event has become a much broader celebration of community, heritage and Mexican – even Latin American – culture.

Since the 1980s, the commercialisation of Cinco de Mayo has raised concerns around cultural appropriation and the stereotyping of Mexico. Despite this, the celebrations themselves are nothing new. During the siege that would bring down Maximilian in 1867, Mexican soldiers loyal to Benito Juárez held their own party on 5 May, celebrating freedom, democracy and reform. The fact that millions of people remember – even if imperfectly – the same event today is testament to the courage of those who defended the Mexican nation over 150 years earlier.

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Edward Shawcross is a historian whose research specialises in French imperialism in Latin America and the Mexican intellectual thought that underpinned the Second Mexican Empire. He is the author of The Last Emperor of Mexico (Faber, 2022)

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