Cinco de Mayo (May 5th) is a considered a minor holiday in Mexico, but in the United States it has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage. As part of my after the day job, I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) to adult immigrants. My students loved to discuss the history and culture of Cinco De Mayo, even those who didn’t have Mexican roots.
When Benito Juarez became president of Mexico in 1861, the country was in financial ruin. When the Mexican government defaulted on debts owed to the European governments of France, Britain and Spain they sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand reimbursement. Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew.
This was not the case with France, ruled by Napoleon III, who decided to take the opportunity to carve an empire out of Mexican territory. The well-armed French fleet stormed Veracruz and landed a strong French force that sent Juarez and his government into retreat.
The French General Charles Latrille de Lorencez thought that his 6,000 troops guaranteed a swift French victory in Mexico. President Juarez managed to round up a rag-tag force of 2000 loyal men, led by Texas born General Zaragoza, they prepared for battle at the small town of Puebla do Los Angeles, in east-central Mexico.
On Cinco de Mayo, 1862, the French army well fed and supported by heavy artillery began their attack from the north. The battle lasted from day break until the early evening of the same day when the French finally retreated having lost nearly 500 soldiers. Less than 100 Mexicans were killed.
This was a tremendous moral victory for the Mexican government, symbolizing the country’s ability to defend its sovereignty against an assault by a powerful foreign nation.
The victory at Puebla tightened Mexican resistance, and six years later France withdrew.