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Cinco de Mayo - Not exactly Fourth of July

Holiday remembers major victory over France.

Posted: May 3, 2008 9:08 p.m.
Updated: July 5, 2008 5:01 a.m.
On Monday, Mexicans and Americans alike will observe Cinco de Mayo.

While many pe-ople joyously celebrate this holiday with food, drink and dance, its  origins are sometimes forgotten.

Mistaken by many as a celebration of Mexican independence from Spain, Cinco de Mayo actually marks the victory of an important battle during the French Occupation of Mexico - almost 41 years after the country's official independence.

In 1862, during the height of France's occupation of Mexico, the Mexican Army battled with the French in the "Batalla de Puebla" (Battle of Puebla). On May 5, the Mexican Army won the battle. Even though the Mexicans eventually lost the war, the Battalla de Puebla came to represent national unity and patriotism. It was symbolic of a Latin American country willing to defend itself against foreign intervention or imperialistic power.

Already independent

Mexico had already declared its independence in 1810, and officially earned it in 1821 after an 11-year  revolutionary war with Spain.

However, that did not stop the French from invading the young country in 1861.

Before the French came in, Mexico struggled as an infant nation. After the Spanish were driven out of the country, the new Mexican government assumed control of the entire New Spain territory, which included modern day American states such as California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

Between 1846 and 1848, most of those lands were lost in the Mexican-American War, severely crippling the country's economy and stunting its growth. With a Civil War occurring during the same era, Mexico entered a period of national crisis during the 1850s, as the national treasury was bankrupt.

On July 17, 1861, President Benito Juarez notified foreign dignitaries that all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years, though payments would resume after the moratorium.

European invasion

Unfortunately for Mexico, three European countries - England, France and Spain - were not too thrilled about Juarez's moratorium. Instead of waiting to collect their loans, all three countries sent their fleets to Mexico to collect money and land rights as payment.

When Spanish and English arrived on the shores of Mexico, they were greeted by Mexican dignitaries who acknowledged the debts and provided them with payment warrants. Both countries accepted the warrants and withdrew their forces shortly thereafter.

But the French refused to leave, instead opting to invade the country.

French troops were instructed to raid Mexico City.

Traveling from the eastern shores of the Mexican coast to Mexico City, the French troops had to cross through the city and state of Puebla - approximately 100 miles east of the capital -along the way.

When more than 6,000 French troops - led by Gen. Francois Achille Bazaine - arrived in Puebla, they were met by approximately 5,000 Mestizo and Zapotec Mexicans who fought under Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza's command.

The ill-equipped army fought behind two forts in Puebla, eventually defeating the French army on May 5, 1862.

The Mexicans may have won the "Batalla de Puebla" on May 5, but the French responded  with a victory of their own when battle resumed on May 8. Both Puebla and Mexico City were captured, and Napoleon installed Maximilian of Hapsburg as the Mexican emperor in 1864.

France's stranglehold in Mexico was short-lived. Maximilian turned against Napoleon and the Mexican Conservative party and sided with the opposition, allowing Juarez to return to power on June 5, 1867. He reinstalled his own government and reestablished the Mexican Republic.


Even though Mexico lost its war with France, the victory at Puebla on May 5 carries deep meaning and significance for Mexicans. While it is not an official national holiday, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated each year in Mexico City and Puebla with military parades, fairs and celebrations involving food and dance.

All the celebrations and parades are in the name of patriotism. Cinco de Mayo pays tribute to the heroes, soldiers and average people who gave their lives for Mexico, not only during the French invasion, but for all conflicts in the country - similar to Veteran's Day or Pearl Harbor Day in the United States.


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