Contrary to popular belief, there’s more to Cinco de Mayo than margaritas and eating foods covered in guacamole. Cinco de Mayo is also not a celebration of Mexico’s independence; that’s actually Sept. 16.
Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican army’s victory over the French forces of Napoleon III on May 5, 1862, at the Battle of Puebla. In 1861, when Benito Juárez became president, Mexico was pretty much bankrupt because of the Reform War. Unfortunately, Juárez inherited debt from the previous president and couldn’t pay it off.
Juárez did the only sensible thing he could think of: He basically stopped paying France, Spain and England for two years.
Unlike bill collectors nowadays, France wasn’t making phone calls all times of the day. It wanted Mexico to pay up. Led by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew who also became known as Napoleon III, the French decided to invade the peso-strapped country.
On this day in 1862, the French came to collect what was due them when they arrived at Puebla, Mexico. Mexican Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza’s army lacked sufficient soldiers and had only the basic fighting essentials, including machetes and old rifles, but they were still able to ward off the French army.
Their victory was bittersweet and short-lived. One year later France returned, defeating Mexico. Juárez was then forced into exile, and Mexico was occupied by Europeans until 1867.
According to the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the University of California, Los Angeles, the holiday was invented in modern-day California in 1863. Mexicans living in California were proud that their country defeated France, but for the most part, it’s an ignored holiday in Mexico itself. Only a few states, including Puebla, recognize it.
As you’re out today eating and drinking in celebration of Cinco de Mayo, remember history behind the holiday and celebrate responsibly!