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5th May 2022

The myth of Cinco de Mayo

The 5th of May commemorates ‘Cinco de Mayo’ dating back to 1862. Antonio Ross reflects on the history of the day and his memories.
The myth of Cinco de Mayo
Photo: dbking @ Flickr

Words by Antonio Ross

Just as it happens every year, I forget it is the 5th of May, as does everyone I know back at home in Mexico. Although some might think of it as a Mexican Independence Day (which actually falls in September) – or some sort of “Mexico day” – the truth is a bit more grizzly.

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the day that Mexican forces won a bloody battle against the French army (which was commanded by Napoleon III at the time) in the city of Puebla.

In fact, we Mexicans mostly refer to it as the day of “The Battle of Puebla”, and it is not even a bank holiday.

In 1862, Mexico was in debt to a few nations, including France who used this as an opportunity to send their army across the ocean and invade Mexico in an attempt to expand their empire.

However, the French forces were defeated in Puebla on the 5th of May after underestimating the Mexican army.

Unfortunately, they did come back a year after, this time taking control of the city, and the capital.

The French, along with the Mexican conservative party then extended an invitation to Maximilian of Habsburg to become Emperor of Mexico, which he obviously accepted. So after freeing ourselves from Spanish occupation, we ended up with an Austrian Emperor.

Personally, my only memories of Cinco de Mayo are all from school, which is pretty much the only place where the date is celebrated.

Activities might change from school to school, but it is common to hold early morning ceremonies where a summary of the history will be told and sometimes even a small dramatization of the events will be performed. I am pretty sure I dressed as a French soldier at some point in my childhood. Well at least that is how it was back in the 90’s.

So, how did Cinco de Mayo gain popularity, while we Mexicans barely talk about it?

It appears that the celebration owes its popularity mostly to the USA. Our northern neighbour chose this date as a way of celebrating Mexican heritage in the US, particularly in LA which has the country’s largest population of Mexican-born citizens (which is no surprise, since it used to be Mexican territory).

The date was chosen as it represented the victory of indigenous Mexicans over European invaders, and the popularity of Cinco de Mayo began to grow.

And so, although our views of the date might differ in both countries, I do think it is important to have a day where Latin-American roots are acknowledged and celebrated especially after the rough migration policies between both countries.

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