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Cinco de Mayo - The True Story
 as told by Jerry P

The holiday of Cinco de Mayo, the 5th of May, commemorates 
the victory of the Mexican militia over the French army at The Battle of 
Puebla in 1862. It is not Mexican Independence Day. It is primarily 
a regional holiday celebrated in the Mexican state capital city of 
Puebla and throughout the state of Puebla, with some limited 
recognition in other parts of Mexico. 

The fifth of May is a date of great importance for the Mexican 
and Chicano communities. The “Batalla de Puebla” came to represent 
a symbol of Mexican unity and patriotism, for with this victory, Mexico 
demonstrated to the world that Mexico and all of Latin America were 
willing to defend themselves against any foreign aggression. 

Oddly enough, Cinco de Mayo has become more of a Chicano holiday 
than a Mexican one. It is celebrated on a much larger scale here in the 
United States than it is throughout Mexico, and celebrations here easily 
outshine those in Mexico, especially in Texas and California. The holiday 
has been observed in California continuously since 1863. People of 
Hispanic origins in the United States celebrate this significant day with 
parades, mariachi music, folk dancing and other types of festive activities. 
Today the largest celebration occurs in Los Angeles, with an attendance 
of over 600,000. 

SIDE NOTE: (The term “Chicano” originated in the 1950s from a 
group of Mexican Americans living in the Chicago area. They referred 
to themselves as “Chicago-Mexicanos”. The name was shortened to 
“Chicanos” and is still in popular use today.) 

Cinco de Mayo’s history has its roots in the French Occupation 
of Mexico. In 1861, Mexico’s President Benito Juarez issued a 
moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended 
for a brief period of two years, with the promise that after this period, 
payments would resume. England, Spain, and France refused to 
allow President Juarez to do this, and instead decided to invade 
Mexico and get their money by whatever means necessary. The 
English and Spanish eventually withdrew, but the French refused to 
leave. Their intention was to create a French Empire in Mexico under 
Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon I ). 

In 1862, the French army of 8,000 troops began its advance. 
However, they were defeated by 5,000 ill-equipped Mestizo and 
Zapotec Indians, led by Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza, in what 
came to be known as the “Batalla de Puebla” on the fifth of May. 
In the United States, the “Batalla de Puebla” came to be known as 
simply “Cinco de Mayo”, and many people mistakenly equate it 
with Mexican Independence Day, which was first celebrated 
forty-one years earlier on September 16, 1821. 

Cinco de Mayo is not an obligatory federal holiday in Mexico, but 
rather, a holiday that can be observed voluntarily. While it has limited 
significance nationwide in Mexico, the date is observed in the United 
States and other locations around the world as a celebration of 
Mexican heritage and pride. The Battle of Puebla was important for at 
least two reasons. First, although greatly outnumbered, the Mexicans 
defeated a much better-equipped French army, which had not been 
defeated for almost 5o years. Second, it was significant because 
since the Battle of Puebla, no country in the Americas has been 
invaded by an army from another continent. 

Cinco de Mayo is perhaps best recognized in the United States 
as a date to celebrate the culture and experiences of Americans of 

Mexican ancestry, much as St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, and the 
Chinese New Year are used to celebrate those of Irish, German, and 
Chinese ancestry respectively. Similar to those holidays, it is 
observed by many Americans regardless of ethnic origin. Events 
tied to Cinco de Mayo also occur outside Mexico and the United 
States. For example, a sky-diving club near Vancouver, Canada, 
holds a Cinco de Mayo skydiving event. In the Cayman Islands, in 
the Caribbean, there is an annual Cinco de Mayo air guitar 
competition. As far away as the island of Malta, in the Mediterranean 
Sea, revelers are encouraged to drink Mexican beer on May 5. 

In the sixties, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass recorded a song called
“Cinco de Mayo” which was the B-side of his hit single, “Spanish Flea.” 

The city of Puebla is one of the cultural gems of Mexico. Located 
about 70 miles from Mexico City, Puebla contains more works of art 
than any other place in Mexico and the Americas and has been 
declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is today one of 
Mexico’s largest cities, with a population of almost two million, and a 
first-class industrial, commercial and tourism center. The State of 
Puebla, of which the city Puebla is capital, is located in the south 
central portion of the Mexican Republic. 

Of interest to Americans is the part which the Battle of Puebla played in 
our own Civil War. The Confederacy had developed favor with France, 
which had been willing to provide arms to the South. However, getting 
them past US Naval vessels was a problem. So, with France’s control 
over Mexico, the arms would come to the Confederacy from Mexico, 
crossing over the Texas border into the southern states. Cinco de Mayo’s 
success crippled the plans of France to smuggle those arms any longer, 
and France turned its attention to preserving its own interests, dropping 
the idea of helping the Confederacy. 

The Mexicans had won a great victory at the Battle of Puebla that kept 
Napoleon III from supplying the Confederate rebels for another year, 
allowing the United States to build the greatest army the world had ever seen. 
This Union Army crushed the Confederates at Gettysburg just 14 months 
after the Battle of Puebla, essentially ending the Civil War. 

After the Civil War, Union forces were rushed to the Texas/Mexican 
border under General Phil Sheridan, who made sure that the Mexicans 
got all the weapons and ammunition they needed to completely expel 
the remaining French. The Union soldiers were discharged and allowed 
to keep their uniforms and rifles, if they promised to join the Mexican 
Army to fight the French. 

The American Legion of Honor was invited to march in the Victory Parade in Mexico City. 

Today, one can only speculate as to how America’s Civil War might 
have turned out……had it not been for the Battle of Puebla and our 
Mexican neighbors stunning victory on Cinco de Mayo. 

...and you thought it was about drinking tequila...

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