Cinco de Mayo history: Why the US celebrates Mexico’s 1862 Battle of Puebla victory

May 5 is not Mexican Independence Day

388842 07: A mock French Army prepares to fire small cannons during a reenactment of the 1862 battle between the French and the Zacapuaxtlas Indians as Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo May 5, 2001 in Puebla, Mexico. (Photo by Susana Gonzalez/Newsmakers) (Susana Gonzalez, Susana Gonzalez / Stringer)

On the fifth of May each year, Americans across the nation celebrate Cinco de Mayo -- a holiday often mistaken as Mexican Independence Day.

Mexicans actually celebrate their independence on Sept. 16, and Cinco de Mayo is not a national holiday in Mexico.

So what is Cinco de Mayo, and why is it celebrated in the U.S.?

History of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo, which translates to the “fifth of May” in English, is a holiday meant to commemorate the Mexican military’s victory in the 1862 Battle of Puebla during the country’s war with France.

In 1861, newly-elected Mexican president Benito Juárez was forced to default on debt payments to Europe as the the country was in “financial ruin,” according to In response to Mexico’s default, military forces were sent to Veracruz, Mexico from France, Britain and Spain to demand payment.

British and Spanish forces reportedly negotiated with Mexico and withdrew their men from the country, but France did not do the same.

Instead, Napoleon III, who was leading France at the time, decided to try and make an empire out of Mexican territory, reports. French military members invaded Veracruz in late 1861, forcing Juarez to retreat. The fight moved to the Mexican city of Puebla, where the tables turned for Mexico’s military.

On May 5, 1862, Mexican forces -- largely outnumbered by French forces -- achieved an unlikely victory in the Battle of Puebla. Mexico lost fewer than 100 out of 2,000 men in the battle, while France lost about 500 out of 6,000 men.

The Battle of Puebla was not a major strategic win for Mexico in the Franco-Mexican War, officials say, but the unlikely victory served as a symbolic victory for the Mexican government.

France did not withdraw from Mexico until 1867.

Is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in Mexico?

Cinco de Mayo is a relatively small holiday in the country of Mexico. The victory of the Battle of Puebla is primarily celebrated in the city of Puebla, which largely recognizes the victory through military reenactments.

For the rest of Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is not considered a national holiday, so businesses are still open and people still go to work like any other day.

Mexican Independence Day is on Sept. 16.

Why is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in the U.S.?

The small-time Mexican holiday was promoted heavily in the United States in the 1960s by activists who, in part, “identified with the victory of Indigenous Mexicans (such as Juárez) over European invaders during the Battle of Puebla,” says.

Many Americans now view the annual holiday as a day to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage. The holiday is often recognized through parades, parties and indulging in traditional Mexican foods. While it’s celebrated across the U.S., Cinco celebrations are especially popular in regions with significant Mexican-American populations.

So, this year, instead of just focusing on margaritas and colorful hats, perhaps consider the historical significance of Cinco de Mayo and our neighbor’s rich history and culture.

Related: Celebrate Cinco de Mayo at this Downriver restaurant with flavors straight from Mexico City

About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.