Cinco de Mayo, or the Fifth of May, celebrates the victory of Mexican forces over the French army at the Battle of Puebla. In 1861, Mexico was in serious financial trouble. The country was forced to default on loans owed to European countries such as Great Britain, Spain, and France. These three countries sent naval forces to Mexico and demanded payments owed to them. Mexican President Benito Juárez was able to negotiate with Great Britain and Spain and they withdrew from the country. The French, under the rule of Napoleon III, refused to negotiate and invaded the country.
In 1862, a French army of 6,000 soldiers led by General Charles Latrille de Lorencez was on its way to capture the city of Puebla de Los Angeles. President Juárez gathered a force of 2,000 soldiers to meet them at the city. They were led by General Ignacio Zaragoza. On May 5, 1862, the two sides fought at Puebla. Though outnumbered, Mexican forces defeated the French. The French suffered 500 causalities; remarkably, the Mexicans suffered fewer than 100 casualties.
The French regrouped and in the end were eventually able to capture Mexico City. Faced with political pressure, the French ultimately withdrew from Mexico in 1867. Though Mexico lost the war, Cinco de Mayo was declared a holiday by President Juárez. The victory represents the defeat of imperialism by underdogs.
In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is mostly celebrated in Puebla. Traditional celebrations include bullfights and military parades. In the United States, it is a day for people to celebrate Mexican heritage and culture.
To celebrate Cinco de Mayo and learn more about Mexican history, take a look at our recommended reading and watching list.