The funny thing about Cinco de Mayo is that although it is a festival of Mexican food, drinks, and parades replete with costumes and banderitas, it is more an American than a Mexican thing. Although Cinco de Mayo doesn’t appear to be a federal holiday in the United States, it is celebrated nationally by virtue of a Congress resolution passed in 2005. It is not a federal holiday in Mexico either where the celebrations seem to be focused in the state of Puebla.
What is the significance of Cinco de Mayo?
During the second half of the 1800s following the Mexican-American war and a civil war, Mexico was almost bankrupt and a moratorium on all foreign debts was declared. France, one of the foreign creditors of Mexico, was not amused and, under Napoleon III, decided to attack Mexico.
To make a long story short, the superior French army was defeated by the poorly equipped Mexican army on May 5, 1862 in a battle that was fought in Peubla. It was not a decisive battle. In fact, it was a momentary victory because, a year later, the French were able to occupy Mexico. But the Battle of Puebla was a huge moral boost to the Mexican resistance. A David versus Goliath scenario which was, naturally, endlessly romanticized.
What’s the American angle? Why is Cinco de Mayo such a big thing in the United States? At the time the Mexicans were fighting the French, America was in the midst of its own civil war. The North versus South episode in its history. According to some, the French so wanted to support the American south but were deprived of an opportunity to establish a base in Mexico to supply the southern Confederacy with arms and munition. So, the Puebla battle had some indirect benefit to America. Or so some say.
Although Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in California were said to have celebrated Cinco de Mayo since the 1860s, Cinco de Mayo did not start to become a huge American festival until the 1940s when, presumably during the antecedents of the “Chicano movement” that bloomed in the 1960s, the growing number of Mexican-Americans started spreading the festivities. Considering the large Mexican-American population in the United States, it is easy to imagine how the Cinco de Mayo festivities spread.
Still, Cinco de Mayo did not really become as popular as it is today until it was commercialized by alcohol marketers. »