Celebrated locally in Mexico as The Day of the Battle of Puebla, Cinco de Mayo commemorates May 5, 1862 when an underdog Mexican army defeated the behemoth French military in a small town just outside of Mexico City. It was the middle of the 19th century and France had occupied a near bankrupt Mexico since the end of the Mexican-American War. President Benito Juárez had just declared a suspension of foreign debt payments, and the European powers were angry. While the American Civil War raged in the North, Britain, Spain and France sent their navies to Mexico to threaten Juárez and collect on their loans.
Napoleon III of France considered the debt a window of opportunity for establishing a French stronghold in Latin America. Although the French army outnumbered the Mexican army two to one and was significantly better trained, Mexico emerged victorious. This defeat of the proverbial Goliath lent a sense of patriotism to the suffering country.
Today, where the battle occurred in the State of Puebla, schools and businesses close for the holiday, and the sense of national pride is strong. Cinco de Mayo, which many wrongly think of as Mexico’s Independence Day, has become more widely celebrated in the United States than in Mexico proper. In the U.S. Cinco de Mayo has transcended its own history, with little or no relation to the original event…becoming a colorful and somewhat raucous annual party centered around Mexican food and drink.