It amuses me that Cinco de Mayo is celebrated throughout the US, yet the day is barely mentioned in Mexico (with the glaring exception of the city of Puebla, of course). Why is this?
In the US, Cinco de Mayo (the 5th of May) is celebrated as a day to show Mexican pride
for all the Mexican-Americans in the US. I´m beginning to liken it to St. Patrick´s Day for all the Irish-Americans. After all, the holiday is beginning to catch on among the anglo crowd, making it a great excuse to drink Coronas and margaritas. Just like on St. Patrick´s Day, when everyone claims Irish ancestry, everyone can pretend to be Mexican on Cinco de Mayo.
After investigating the holiday a bit, it turns out that there really is a reason why Cinco de Mayo should be celebrated more in the US than in Mexico. Of course, that´s not the reason that it is celebrated there, but it´s good to know that there SHOULD be a reason more solid than a serious margarita craving.
Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle between the Mexican army and the French on the 5th of May, 1862. At the time, Mexico owed quite a bit of money to the French government, and France was tired of waiting to be paid back. They decided that if Mexico wasn´t going to pay them back, they´d just take over the country.
Normally, this would have been a trickier plan to pull off, as the US would have stepped in with the Monroe Doctrine and told France to shove off. However, this was 1862, and the US was knee-deep fighting amongst itself. France knew that they would have no problems with the US, beyond a memo expressing the US´s displeasure. France didn´t lose any sleep over that. Furthermore, keep in mind that this France was a few decades removed from Napoleon (Napoleon III was the actual emperor) and France´s army had long been established as the world´s superior military force. They were just about assured to breeze into Mexico City and be in control of the government within a few months.
But they were stopped at Puebla–for reasons still not quite understood. France´s army boasted 6000 troops against Mexico´s 2000. The Mexicans did not have the superior training of the French army or up-to-date weapons. But they held their ground and drove France back to Veracruz. This overcoming all odds in defense of their country is why the Battle of Puebla is still celebrated every year in Puebla.
However, a year later, France regrouped, marched again to Mexico City, and succeeded in overthrowing the government. (Or, at least sending Juarez´s government on the run for the following five years.) So, in the end, did the events of Cinco de Mayo have any lasting significance?
Not necessarily for Mexico, but it sure made a world of difference for the US. In early 1862, the Confederacy still had the upper hand in the Civil War. The Battle of Gettsyburg had not yet happened. Had France been able to seize Mexico City in May or June of 1862, they would have been just in time to send much-needed soldier reinforcements and supplies to the Confederacy through Texas. France had solid reasons for supporting the Confederacy in their fight for independence, and there is little doubt they would have, had they had the chance.
However, they had to wait until 1863 until they were in a position to help. By that time, the tide of the war between the US and the Confederacy had turned. The help France could have sent in 1863 or 1864 would have been futile. Thanks in part to the events of the 5th of May, in the city of Puebla, the US is the country it is today.
Keep that in mind, while washing down the chips and salsa with a few margaritas!