What You Think You Know About Cinco De Mayo Is Wrong

For many, the fifth day of May means one thing: Cinco de Mayo celebrations. But as it turns out, a lot of the people who get the most into celebrating the holiday are the ones who understand it the least. For one thing, Cinco de Mayo just isn't as big of a deal in Mexico as it is in other countries — it's not even a national holiday. And that leads directly to the second point. It's not, repeat, not Mexican Independence Day. That comes on September 16 and celebrates an event that occurred more than 50 years before the battle that Cinco de Mayo commemorates.

The Real Reason for the Season

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla, which took place in 1862. But Mexico had been independent from Spain since 1810, so what made this date so important? While the American Civil War was unfolding in the north, Mexico was facing troubles of its own as President Benito Juarez canceled his country's payments to France, Spain, and England — and France wasn't going to let that slide. Emperor Napoleon III (the nephew of the guy with the funny hat) sent the largest army in the world at the time to Mexico's shores, intent on living up to the original Napoleon's dreams of world domination.

But the French miscalculated the loyalty of the people of Puebla and found themselves outmatched by an underdog force of citizen-soldiers. The day of the French retreat rallied the nation and bolstered a sense of national pride. Though the French would launch a more successful invasion in later years, they'd never hold on to their American territories for long. It's easier to just let Mexico be Mexico.

The Battle of Puebla's Mariposa Effect

Here's the thing — without the Battle of Puebla, world history might have been very different. In the 1860s, there weren't a lot of countries in the Americas that were very happy about intervention from European powers, so Mexico had an ally — of sorts — in the United States. But as much as Lincoln and other U.S. politicians decried the French invasion, they weren't able to do much to help. After all, they had a Civil War going on, and even if they were to step in to lend Mexico a hand, that could have led to France supporting the slave-holding states. In fact, France was probably inclined to do so anyway — after they dealt with this little Mexican uprising. But because Puebla sent the French army packing, they were never able to give the Union army much trouble. It just goes to show how one battle can change the course of history all over the globe.

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Learn more in "Cinco de Mayo: The History of the Battle of Puebla and the Famous Holiday" by Gustavo Vazquez-Lozano. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas May 3, 2018

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