While Cinco de Mayo is a popular time to celebrate, two professors provide the real reason why this historical day is acknowledged.
“At this point, I think only 22% of Americans actually know the history and the origin of Cinco de Mayo, yet we see a large variety of people engaging in celebrating,” said Ruth Calcanas, an Ethnic Studies professor with a focus on Chicana/o and Latin communities in the United States.
Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of the Mexican Army’s historic victory against the French Empire in the Battle of Puebla in 1862.
In 1861, Mexico was lead under the newly elected president Benito Juarez. The country was in financial debt to Spain, Britain and France, but had no money in the treasury to pay their taxes. President Juarez had proposed to suspend all foreign payment for two years, which prompted the three European countries to send joint forces to Mexico. However, after negotiating debt repayment with President Juarez, both Spain and Britain chose to withdraw their forces.
On the other hand, France, under Emperor Napoleon III, took advantage of the situation to claim Mexico as a French territory. Napoleon III had hoped to “make up” for the land France had lost to the United States through the Louisiana Purchase, Professor Calcanas said.
“President Lincoln recognized the potential danger of French intervention and Napoleon III’s ambitions in Mexico, but the Civil War impeded US ability to protect Mexico,” commented Professor Anu Mande, who received her doctorate in Latin American History from Ohio State University, Columbus.
In 1862, thousands of French soldiers were sent to invade the city of Puebla in Mexico. In response, President Juarez sent a small Mexican army to counter the attack, lead by General Ignacio Zaragoza. The French troops vastly outnumbered the small Mexican army, which lacked proper training and supply of ammunition. Against all odds, it was the French who were forced to concede due to heavy casualties
“Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of the defeat of a massive, professional and well-equipped European army by a small, untrained and ill-equipped Mexican army, ” Professor Mande said, adding that it was a victory that stored national pride in Mexicans.
When Mexico won the Battle of Puebla, it was more than just a victory– it was a stand against an imperialistic force that threatened their country.
“Imperialism is really rooted in racism, and there was a lot of racist rhetoric surrounding the motive,” Calcanas noted.
It was around the mid-twentieth century that Chicano activists, at the height of the Chicano Movement, embraced Cinco de Mayo “as a symbol of social justice and a day of pride and celebration,” Mande said.
Cinco de Mayo is an annual reminder of the resistance of Mexican forces against imperialism. Many people today are unaware of the holiday’s significance and the deeper meaning it holds for the Mexican community.
Calcanas noted that people need to be mindful and educated when they choose to celebrate another country’s holiday in order to give it proper acknowledgment.
“Especially now when anti-Mexican and anti-Latinx sentiments are on the rise, we really need to be mindful and respectful of the holidays and history of Mexico,” Calcanas added.