Cinco de Mayo is one of those sorely misunderstood holidays. Chances are that most of the people you know think it is Mexico’s Independence Day. Imagine what your child must think as she looks around and sees the sombrero and maraca decorations in your local shops, or what your son assumes when he notices the $5 margarita signs or dinner menu specials celebrating the holiday. What a wonderful opportunity you now have to stop and teach your child the true history behind this extremely important holiday and the role it played in our own United States history.
What is Cinco de Mayo?
Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is NOT the Mexican Independence Day. (That is actually celebrated on September 16th.) Instead, this holiday commemorates the victory of a small Mexican army of about 4,000 soldiers, over the French forces that were considered to be the best army in the world at the time. This is known as the Battle of Puebla, and it occurred on May 5th, 1862.
Let me give you a little bit of background information:
In 1861, Mexico’s treasury (and government) was in shambles after years of wars: the Mexican-American War in 1846-48; the Mexican Civil War in 1858; and the 1860 Reform Wars.
So in an attempt to begin rebuilding the country, Presidente Benito Juárez issued a two-year moratorium on all foreign debts. His intention was to resume payments to the foreign lenders a couple of years later in 1863. But naturally France, Britain, and Spain, did not look too kindly on this and they each sent troops over to Veracruz to demand their money. Juárez negotiated with Britain and Spain, but the French forced Juárez and the government to flee. The French forces then began their march towards Mexico City, but encountered a small army in Puebla under the direction of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín.
At this time, Napoleon III (not Napoleon Bonaparte!) was the emperor of France and he saw this as an opportunity to establish a French empire in the Americas.
It is incredibly important that people understand that the U. S. Civil War was happening at the exact same time. Napoleon’s plan was to spend a few months invading and conquering Mexico, and then use the country as a base for supplying the Confederate rebels with supplies and weapons to help them win the war.
Had the brave men and women of Puebla not decided to take a stand against such overwhelming odds — and won! — the outcome of the U. S. Civil War could have been drastically different. And it is for this reason alone, that I personally think that Cinco de Mayo should be celebrated in the United States.
Should it be celebrated in Mexico? Probably not so much. Today, it is mainly celebrated in the city of Puebla, because although this victory was a much-needed morale booster for the people and government, Napoleon returned the following year with an army of 30,000 and captured Mexico City, establishing Emperor Maximiliano I as ruler. But his reign was short-lived as, incidentally, after the U.S. Civil War was over, the U.S. provided support to Mexico to expel the French. They were not stupid and had feared France’s support of the Confederacy during the war. Afterwards, they were quick to help Mexico give them the boot!
I think that President Lincoln would have wholeheartedly celebrated Cinco de Mayo, don’t you?
For a more entertaining version of the history of this holiday, download the free educational app, Cinco de Mayo: The battle of Puebla. It is a high-quality app that is very well done. (Note: This app does offer in-app purchases.)
Monica Olivera Hazelton, NBC Latino contributor and the founder and publisher of MommyMaestra.com, a site for Latino families that homeschool, as well as families with children in a traditional school setting who want to take a more active role in their children’s education. She is the 2011 winner of the “Best Latina Education Blogger” award by LATISM.