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What is Cinco de Mayo? - History & Facts

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

You've probably heard of the Mexican celebration of Cinco de Mayo, but how did it get its start? This lesson explores the history of Cinco de Mayo and key facts about the holiday.

Cinco de Mayo

If you've ever studied in Spanish in school, the odds are you've celebrated Cinco de Mayo. Besides being a fun excuse to have a party in class, what is the significance of Cinco de Mayo? When is it celebrated? Why is it celebrated? This lesson seeks to answer all of these questions!

Mexico Misses a Payment

In 1861, Mexico's newly elected president, Benito Juarez, was faced with an unfortunate reality. Mexico's economy was in complete shambles, but what could be done to fix the problem? At the time, Mexico owed a number of European countries money. Juarez knew that Mexico did not have enough money to sort out its domestic problems and pay back its debts, so he made a risky decision. Mexico would default, or not make payments, on its loans from Great Britain, Spain and France.

Benito Juarez
Benito Juarez

As you can imagine, Great Britain, Spain and France were less than pleased with Juarez's decision. In an attempt to force Mexico to make their payments, the three European countries sent troops across the Atlantic. Within a year, Mexico successfully negotiated a settlement with Great Britain and Spain. Both countries pulled their troops from Mexico shortly after.

France's ruler, Napoleon III, had other intentions. His French troops were not going anywhere. Napoleon III wanted to take a piece of Mexico for France, effectively creating a small French monarchy. This would allow France to gain a foothold in North America and check the United States' influence in the hemisphere.

The Battle of Puebla

Napoleon III's well-trained forces easily captured the city of Veracruz, the seat of Mexico's government. By the end of 1861, Juarez and other officials were forced to flee. The French troops planned to push inland towards central Mexico. After such an easy victory in Veracruz, there was no way Mexico's ill-prepared army could possibly stop them.

As the French prepared to attack of Puebla de Los Angeles, Juarez did his best to pull together a ragtag army to defend the small town. Under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza, the Mexican forces were drastically outnumbered by the French. Regardless, the troops prepared themselves for battle. The Battle of Puebla began at dawn on May 5, 1862 and raged on until sunset.

Ignacio Zaragoza
Ignacio Zaragoza

Much to the surprise of the French, Zaragoza's troops were a feisty and formidable bunch. Ultimately the French were forced to retreat from Puebla. The Mexicans lost less than a hundred men, while the French suffered casualties upwards of five times that number.

Batalla del 5 de mayo de 1862
Batalla del 5 de mayo de 1862

Significance and Celebrations

The Battle of Puebla was not the end of the conflict between France and Mexico. French troops would not leave Mexico for nearly six more years. So why exactly was the Battle of Puebla such a big deal? The Battle of Puebla became a symbol of Mexico's scrappiness and resolve. They were still a relatively young country, but they refused to be bullied by other world powers.

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