Cinco de Mayo (Spanish for “Fifth of May”) celebrates the legendary Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, in which a Mexican force of 4,500 men faced 6,000 well-trained French soldiers. The battle lasted four hours and ended in a victory for the Mexican army under General Ignacio Zaragoza.
The battle’s history has its roots in the French Occupation of Mexico. After the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, Mexico entered a period of bankruptcy. In 1861, President Benito Juarez issued a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for a brief period of two years, with the promise that after this period, payments would resume.
The English, Spanish and French decided to invade Mexico and get payments by whatever means necessary. The Spanish and English eventually withdrew, but the French refused to leave. Their intention was to create an Empire in Mexico under Napoleon III. In 1862, the French army began its advance. But under General Zaragoza, the ill-equipped Mestizo and Zapotec Indians defeated the French army.
In a subsequent battle in 1863 the French came back and won and occupied Mexico, but no one let that fact stop the celebration for the 1862 battle.
Along with Mexican Independence Day on September 16, Cinco de Mayo has become a popular time to celebrate Mexican heritage and culture, more so in the U.S. than in Mexico. As NBC news reported:
“Recent Mexican immigrants are often surprised at what a huge thing Cinco de Mayo has become here [i.e., in the U.S.].” . . . . They do celebrate the holiday in Mexico, but it is only a big deal in Puebla.”
In fact, Los Angeles is host to what is routinely described as the largest Cinco de Mayo party in the world, a multiday event known as Fiesta Broadway. The scale of these festivities even dwarfs those in Puebla.
In 2017, however, the celebration of Cinco de Mayo was curtailed in many places. In Philadelphia, for example, after immigration raids across the country and reports of White House deportation plans, the party was canceled. As the Washington Post reported:
Everyone’s pretty much afraid because they’re saying that, basically, ICE is just going to come in out of nowhere,’ resident Florencia Gonzalez told NBC 10 on a quiet, wet street that El Carnaval de Puebla used to fill in late April.”
An organizer, Edgar Ramirez, explained that up to 15,000 people have attended the festival in years past, but now, “We don’t want anything to happen to them.” Thus they unanimously decided to cancel.