The phrase “Fifth of May” doesn’t have much meaning, but translate it into Spanish, Cinco de Mayo, and it’s a celebration with parades, parties, and special food. But why is it celebrated?
If you guessed a Mexican victory in battle occurred on May 5, you’re correct. If you know the year, 1862, you’re ready to go on Jeopardy. If you know which battle, against which enemy, you’re one of very few. But not for long – soon every faithful reader of this blog will join your company.
In 1848 Mexico lost what Americans call the Mexican-American War. Ten years later, Mexico experienced civil war. Consequently, in 1860 Mexico was in debt to France, Britain, and Spain. But there wasn’t any money. President Benito Juárez suspended payments for two years. This was not a popular move with Mexico’s creditors. Their respective navies paid a port call at Vera Cruz. Britain and Spain withdrew. The French invaded with 8,000 troops and came into contact with the Mexican army – 4500 strong – outside a the small town of Puebla. The French lost.
It was a moment of national pride, still celebrated in Puebla, but not in Mexico as a whole. Perhaps because, ultimately, the French won the war. Which still leaves the question of why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the U.S.
Some say the first celebration north of the Border occurred when Mexicans working the California gold mines heard the news and fired their rifles in the air. Another story says the celebration originated in Mexican-American communities, many of which existed in territories ceded to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War. The official date for those first celebrations – about 1862.
Fast forward to 1998. The U.S. Postal Service recognized Cinco de Mayo as an American holiday and issued a commemorative 32-cent stamp. Seven years later, in 2005, the U.S. Congress issued a Concurrent Resolution for President George W. Bush to issue a Proclamation for Americans to observe Cinco de Mayo. Which we do – with Margaritas, parades, and mariachi bands.
¡FELIZ CINCO DE MAYO!
Featured Image: Photo by diking, Creative Commons Attribution, Wikimedia Commons
“Cinco de Mayo: Whose Holiday is it Anyway?” NPR, May 2, 2014,
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.