Every year, as we approach the 5th of May, stores and companies begin to promote Cinco de Mayo in their storefronts and through their advertisements. There are office parties, full of festive decorations, and children at school might have the opportunity to take a swing at a piñata. This splendor is to celebrate a date of significance to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans alike.
While this is not Mexican Independence Day (that is on September 16th), it is a date pivotal to the history of Mexico. In 1861, Mexico was bankrupt, and had outstanding debts to Britain, Spain, France and the U.S. While the Monroe Doctrine warned European nations to avoid intrusion into the affairs of the Americas -- France, England and Spain signed the Covenant of London, where they agreed to send troops to collect on those debts. England and Spain came to peaceful agreements with Mexico, while France prepared to attack.
On May 5th, 1862, the French attacked the city of Puebla, but under the leadership of Texas-born Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, the Mexican Army was triumphant in the battle. It brought the country together and helped create a sense of unity.
Interestingly, the first celebrations of Cinco de Mayo started one year later in California, which had recently become part of the United States. According to a paper published last year by the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, as the French continued to attack Mexico, beginning with a subsequent attack on Puebla just one year after the initial attack, Cinco de Mayo brought together the people of California. The date brought together native-born Californios (individuals from the region prior to annexing by the U.S.); recent immigrants from Mexico, as well as Central and South-America; and the new generation of English-speaking American children. Since 1863, Californians have celebrated the fifth of May, and now people across the U.S. recognize the occasion as well. Yet it is virtually ignored in Mexico. From its inception, Cinco de Mayo has been a day for those with Mexican heritage in our country to celebrate our roots, marked with patriotic speeches and celebrations, displaying both U.S. and Mexican flags.
Another important fact to consider is how this battle played into U.S. history, as the Civil War waged on. France, and other European nations, were concerned about the rapid expansion of the United States, and had an interest in staving off U.S. expansion towards the South. Seeing the young nation split into two less powerful and less threatening nations was an ideal vision of Napoleon III, then ruler of France.
While the Covenant of London was being finalized, General Robert E. Lee was winning battles for the Confederacy. Had the French been victorious in that original Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862, they could have continued their influence across the Mexican nation, and would have likely supported the Confederacy in its battle against Union forces. Instead, the French had to regroup their forces and concentrate on their war with Mexico, which was much more united just one year after the first attack. Of course, just fourteen months after the Battle of Puebla, the U.S. Civil War would see a major battle when Union forces claimed victory at Gettysburg and effectively brought a close to the Civil War.
As we attend Cinco de Mayo celebrations, let us take a moment to remember the history behind this event-- significant for its impact on Mexico, its impact on the U.S., and for bringing together those with ties to both countries.