Cinco de Mayo (May 5th) is a relatively minor holiday in Mexico, but in the United States it has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage. Unfortunately, last year it heralded unrest and we got a glimpse through the media of not so great political activism. We can only hope that tomorrow’s celebration will be what it is meant to be, a joyful celebration of the rich heritage of the Mexican people.
What is the history of Cinco de Mayo?
During the course of the French-Mexican war General Ignacio Zaragoza and his poor and outnumbered Mexican army defeated the French army intent on capturing a small town in east-central Mexico called Puebla de Los Angeles. This was a great moral victory for the Mexican government, symbolizing the country’s ability to defend itself against a threat by a powerful foreign nation.
When Benito Juarez became president of Mexico in 1861, the country was in financial ruin and defaulted on debts to the European governments. As a result, France, Spain and Britain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand reimbursement of their money.
Britain and Spain struck a deal with Mexico and withdrew. France ruled by Napoleon, decided to use the situation to acquire Mexico.
It was late in 1861 that a well-armed French navy stormed Veracruz, the large French military force drove President Juarez and his government into retreat.
The French thought victory would be swift and 6,000 French troops under General Charles Latrille de Lorencez set out on a mission to attack Puebla do Lost Angeles. At his new northern headquarters, Juarez pulled together a rag-tag force of 2000 loyal followers and sent them to Puebla.
Led by Texas-born General Zaragoza the Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the arrival of the French army. And, on the 5th May, 1862, Lorencez drew his army well-provisioned and supported by heavy artillery and began their assault from the north.
The battle lasted from first light to early evening and the French finally retreated with a loss of 500 soldiers. Fewer than 100 Mexicans were killed.
Although this was not considered a major strategic victory in the overall war against the French, the victory at Puebla enhanced Mexican resistance and 6 years later the French withdrew.
Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, who had been installed as emperor of Mexico by Napoleon in 1864, was captured and executed by Juarez’ forces.
Puebla de Los Angeles, the site of Zaragoza’s historic victory, was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the general. And, today the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla is celebrated by Mexicans as Cinco de Mayo—a national holiday in Mexico.
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