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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Explained: The history of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo (May the fifth in Spanish) is a joyous celebration every year in Mexico and the United States.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
May 5, 2021 1:47:37 pm
Cinco de Mayo festivities in San Francisco. Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexico's victory over the French army in 1862. (The New York Times: Jim Wilson)

With parties, parades and Mexican cuisine and music, Cinco de Mayo (May the fifth in Spanish) is a joyous celebration every year in Mexico and the United States. It is a day that celebrates Mexican national pride, marking Mexico’s military victory on its soil over French forces in 1862.

Mexico was then led by President Benito Juárez (1806-1872), a revered democratic reformer and opponent of foreign intervention in his country, after whom the Benito Jaurez Marg in New Delhi is named and where the Embassy of Mexico in India is located.

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Why is Cinco de Mayo celebrated?

In the 1860s, Mexico had been severely weakened by lengthy wars over the previous two decades — the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and the internal Reform War (1858-61). As a result, in 1861, President Benito Juárez announced a temporary moratorium of two years on repaying Mexico’s foreign debts.

In response, troops from Britain, Spain, and France invaded Mexico, demanding reimbursement. By April 1862, Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew, but France, which at the time was led by Emperor Napoleon III, decided to establish an empire in Mexican territories with the support of the local landowning classes. France also intended to curb US power in North America.

The Battle of Puebla

In late 1861, a French fleet attacked the Mexican port of Veracruz on the country’s eastern coast and landed a large army that drove the Juárez government into retreat. As they moved from Veracruz to the capital Mexico City, the French encountered stiff resistance from Mexican forces.

At Puebla, over 100 km ahead of Mexico City, a poorly equipped and outnumbered Mexican force decisively defeated the advancing French troops on May 5, 1862, killing over a thousand. The event marked a significant political victory of Mexican republicans and President Juárez, and helped establish a sense of national unity in the country.

Present-day significance in Mexico and the United States

In Puebla, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated annually with speeches, parades, and by reenacting episodes of the 1862 battle. The city today houses a museum dedicated to the battle, and the actual battlefield is maintained as a park.

In the US, in the mid-20th century, the celebration became a way for immigrants from Mexico to express pride in their heritage. Later, Cinco de Mayo also became popular with other demographics in the country when the festivities were linked with Mexican alcoholic beverages, such as the margarita. As the celebration assumed greater importance in the country, many have criticised the negative stereotypes of Mexicans that were perpetuated as a result, as well as the promotion of excessive drinking.

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