But it is also a frequently misunderstood holiday. For those out of the loop, here’s a refresher on what Cinco de Mayo is all about.
What exactly is Cinco de Mayo?
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People often mistake Cinco de Mayo for a celebration of Mexican independence. But they’re wrong.
The holiday celebrates a failed French invasion after a fledgling Mexican state defaulted on debt payments to European governments.
In 1861 Mexico was suffering from financial ruin following years of internal strife. This was exploited by the French President Napoleon III, who thought it would be a fantastic time to try and build an empire there. Mexico had defaulted on debts with Britain and Spain as well, but those two countries negotiated with the country and withdrew their navy.
The French invaded Mexico in late 1861 with well-armed forces and stormed Veracruz, forcing the Mexican government and its forces to retreat into northern Mexico.
Confident of further victories, French forces focused their attention on the city Puebla de Los Angeles. Anticipating the attack, Mexican President Benito Juárez brought together a group of 2,000 men to fight back, many of whom were indigenous Mexicans or of mixed ancestry.
When the French finally attacked, on May 5, 1862, the battle lasted from daybreak to early evening. The French ended up retreating after losing almost 500 soldiers. The Mexicans lost fewer than 100.
Was the battle significant?
Strategically, not really. The battle represented more of a symbolic victory for the Mexican forces and added to the resistance. French forces didn’t leave until 1867 after years of fighting. Mexicans were helped in part by the end of the Civil War, when the US was able to send their own troops to help out their besieged neighbour.