Guest Editorial: Cinco de Mayo celebrated more in US than Mexico

May 5 is Cinco De Mayo, a holiday rooted in Mexican history that has been adopted by millions of Americans, both Latino and non-Latino.  The holiday is actually celebrated more in the United States than in Mexico.


This year marks the 160th anniversary of the inspiration for the holiday, a Mexican victory over the French at the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The improbable outcome is a cherished moment in the history of Mexico and is often confused by Americans as a Mexican Independence Day.

 The battle of Puebla was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal period for Mexico. Saddled with crushing debt and political instability, Mexico endured thirty-six changes in presidency between 1833 and 1855 and was threatened with revolt even during its war with America from 1846-48.   The legendary Santa Anna ruled Mexico eleven times before his death in 1876.

By 1861, Mexico was heavily in debt to European powers such as Britain, France, and Spain, who allied for a military intervention to recoup the monies owed to them. France, however, was the most enthusiastic, as Napoleon wanted to conquer Mexico and re-affirm a global empire. Britain and Spain eventually negotiated with the Mexicans and left soon after realizing French intent. 

Mexico was little match for the powerful French army, one of the strongest in the world, and suffered from lack of manpower, equipment, and financial resources. As some 6,000 French troops and 2,000 loyalists advanced on Mexico City, they approached the city of Puebla, where a hastily assembled force of 4,000 Mexicans awaited.

The Mexican defenders included many farmers carrying hunting rifles and machetes, among other inferior arms. Still, the Mexicans were atop a steep hill, with a ditch and brick wall as extra protection.  A short artillery bombardment failed, so the French command recklessly ordered a frontal assault, which was summarily repulsed.

Two other charges also failed before the Mexicans counter-attacked, and the French forces eventually retreated with losses of over 500 men. Four days later, Mexican President Benito Juarez declared Cinco De Mayo as an annual national holiday.

The smashing win at Puebla, however, did not affect the outcome of the French intervention, which eventually carried the nation for Napoleon. The French leader installed Maximillian, the Archduke of Austria, as Emperor of Mexico.

A number of ex-Confederates settled in colonies in Mexico after the Civil War.  Among them was Missouri general Sterling Price, who lived on 640 acres west of Vera Cruz in the attractive colony of Carlota, named for Maximilian’s spirited wife. The United States, preoccupied with the Civil War, had done little to halt Napoleon’s advance. 

The Maximilian regime was seemingly doomed from the start, as the new emperor faced stiff Liberal opposition. Though he embraced many forms of Mexican culture in his grand mansion outside Mexico City and pledged his allegiance to his new homeland, Maximilian quickly lost popularity. The United States, now free of the Civil War, demanded French evacuation, and support among the French public was also eroding.

In 1866, France began to withdraw its troops, leaving Maximilian with badly outnumbered forces. The emperor was eventually captured and executed by firing squad on June 19, 1867. Carlota, having failed in attempts to find European support, descended into madness and died in Belgium in 1927.

Today, Cinco De Mayo is an important day on the calendar in Puebla, where mass celebrations are held. Neighboring Mexican states also honor the holiday, and many streets across Mexico are named “Cinco De Mayo.”

Still, the holiday is much more popular in the United States and is marked in numerous American cities, not just those along the border. Alcohol flows freely in many of these celebrations, while parades, costumes, and music also dominate the day.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or [email protected].

Contact us: (803) 767-5711 | P.O. Box 675, Blythewood, SC 29016 | [email protected]