What is celebrated on Cinco de Mayo in Mexico and the U.S.?

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Day of the Battle of Puebla, and while it is a relatively minor holiday, in the United States Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a commemoration of Mexican culture and heritage, especially in areas with a large Mexican-American population.

What is celebrated on Cinco de Mayo in Mexico and the U.S.?
Photo by Josh Wilburne / Unsplash

Cinco de Mayo honors the day Mexican troops saved the city of Puebla. This was a great day in Mexican history. In 1862 the French army marched into Mexico. France wanted to make Mexico part of their empire. The Mexican people did not want to be ruled by France. They wanted to remain in their own country.

The Mexican army was not as big as the French army. The Mexican army was not as well-armed as the French army. Against all odds, the Mexican army won. The Battle of Puebla took place on May 5, 1862. In Spanish, Cinco de Mayo means "Fifth of May. It became a symbol of Mexican unity and patriotism.

The history of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is one of the most important national holidays in the history of Mexico because in it we relive the Battle of Puebla, which took place on May 5, 1862, in which a decimated Mexican army under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza, supported by peasants and indigenous Zacapoaxtlas, stopped and defeated the powerful French army, one of the most professional and best equipped of that time.

This celebration also takes place in the United States in a massive way, which makes it a binational celebration. If you, my friend reader, do not know why Cinco de Mayo is a binational holiday, I will describe it very briefly. The Battle of Puebla occurred just when the United States was immersed in its Civil War and at a time when the armies of the slave-owning South had the military forces of the industrialized North up against the wall.

Today, Cinco de Mayo is a bigger holiday in the United States than in Mexico. Puebla, where the battle took place, still celebrates the victory. Mexican Americans in the United States celebrate with fiestas. Festivals include parades, music, traditional foods, and dances.

The survival of the Union defended by President Abraham Lincoln, with the values of democracy, equality, and freedom, was threatened by the slaveholding South, which had the sympathy of the European monarchies. The events following the Battle of Puebla show the relationship between the French invasion of Mexico and the U.S. Civil War.

In 1865, when the Civil War had concluded, Mexico was still occupied by French troops supporting Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg against the Mexican resistance led by Benito Juarez. In May of that year, General Ulysses Grant sent General Philip Sheridan to occupy the banks of the Rio Bravo not only to prevent the slaveholders from fleeing to Mexico and joining Maximilian but also because he feared that the French soldiers would support the defeated South from Mexico.

In his memoirs, General Sheridan wrote that General Ulysses Grant "viewed the invasion of Mexico by Maximilian as part of the rebellion itself, because of the stimulus the invasion had received from the Confederacy, and that our success in quelling the secession would never be complete until the French and Austrian invaders were forced to abandon the territory of our sister republic." That is historical evidence of the relationship between the French invasion of Mexico and the Civil War. It is well known that the European monarchies were always opposed to the democratic model of government in the United States.

The defeat of the French army at Puebla on May 5, 1862, was not only a triumph for the outnumbered and poorly equipped Mexican military forces, but it represented the victory of the values of independence, democracy, and freedom that Mexicans and Americans share. And although the defeated French regrouped and with reinforcements from Europe imposed Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico, the resistance of the Mexicans led by President Benito Juarez allowed that after 5 years, the French were completely defeated and expelled from Mexico. The culmination of this passage of Mexican history was the execution of Maximilian of Habsburg at Cerro de las Campanas, in the state of Queretaro on June 19, 1867, together with his Mexican collaborators, Miguel Miramon and Tomas Mejia.

Thus, on May 5, 1862, while the Americans were living their civil war, it was the Mexicans who stopped the invading French troops in Puebla; it was the Mexicans who defended the common values of independence, freedom, and democracy; that is why the celebration eventually became a binational holiday.

Cinco de Mayo was first celebrated in California before anywhere else in the United States, just weeks after the historic Battle of Puebla. Dr. David Hayes-Bautista documented in his book "Cinco de Mayo an American Tradition" that the first celebrations occurred in the Fresno, California area.

Those early celebrations make perfect sense because, for California, a non-slave state, the triumph of the slaveholding South represented a threat to its way of life, more in line with that of the North; for California, the triumph of the slaveholders was a threat to the values of democracy and freedom of a population whose origin was Hispanic-Mexican.

Therefore, the news of the resounding defeat of the powerful French army at the hands of the decimated Mexican army was considered a triumph of democracy and freedom, values that Mexicans and Americans share to this day. This extraordinary military action is a symbol of the union of Mexicans in adversity to defend territory and homeland.

Cinco de Mayo Piñatas

Piñatas are a big part of the 5 de Mayo festivities. They are filled with candy for the children. To play the piñata game, the piñata is hung out of reach of the children. One at a time, a child is blindfolded and then given a bat to try to break the piñata. This is not an easy task. Once the piñata is broken, all the treats fall to the ground and the children run in a rush to get their hands on them.

How to make a simple piñata

You need these materials:

  • a balloon
  • strips of newspaper
  • paper mache (a mixture of flour and water)
  • tissue paper in many colors
  • glue
  • string
  • a knife or sharp scissors

Begin to inflate the balloon. Completely cover the balloon with the strips of newspaper dipped in paper mache. Allow the paper mache to dry completely. Cut small squares of different colors of tissue paper. Pucker the tissue squares over the eraser of a pencil. Then stick glue to the center part of the paper and attach it to the balloon. Continue until the balloon is completely covered with paper squares.

Once the glue has dried, cut a small slit in the top of the piñata with a knife or sharp scissors. Fill the piñata with candy or other treats. Cover the opening. Tie a string to hang the piñata. Now you are ready to play the piñata game!