How Cinco de Mayo Became a Mexican-American Holiday

Published on May 2, 2024

Celebrate Cinco de Mayo with eATLAS! Take our Taco Crawl through Lincoln Park or our Frida & Friends: Food & Art Tour in Pilsen. Cyclists can also explore Pilsen and Humboldt Park through our Revolutionary Ride, a bike tour created by the Newberry Library that is available in English and Spanish.

By Dave Lifton (@daveeatschicago)

In 1861, Mexico was on the verge of bankruptcy. In an attempt to stabilize the economy, Benito Juárez declared a two-year moratorium on reimbursing its European creditors. In response, the United Kingdom, France, and Spain joined forces to send troops and demand repayment. Britain and Spain quickly negotiated a settlement, but France’s emperor, Napoleon III, had a different motive. 

The Civil War had already begun in America, and the Union’s naval blockade of Confederate ports stifled trade with France. Napoleon believed that, by conquering and colonizing Mexico, France could ally with the Confederacy, and provide the South with guns in exchange for cotton via the southern border. And with America dealing with its internal conflict, Mexico would fall without much of a fight.

It didn’t quite happen as easily as France had hoped. Despite being undermanned and less organized, General Ignacio Zaragoza’s troops beat back General Charles de Lorencez and his men in Puebla on May 5th, 1862. Four days later, Juárez proclaimed that the victory would be recognized annually as a national holiday. Fort Guadalupe, where a substantial portion of the battle was fought, is now a museum.

A year later, however, Puebla fell and the French took Mexico City shortly thereafter. Napoleon installed Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria as the emperor. But the French regime didn’t last long. Mexican resistance, coupled with the failure of the Confederacy, thwarted Napoleon’s intentions, and he announced a withdrawal in early 1866. Maximilian was captured and executed, and Juárez returned to power in mid-1867.

Even before Mexican sovereignty had been restored, Mexican-Americans in California and Nevada understood that the concurrent wars were linked as part of their own quest for self-determination. If the French were able to help the Confederacy defeat the Union, they believed, then they, as non-whites, could be enslaved. They formed juntas patrióticas (“patriotic assemblies”) to raise money for both causes, and Zaragoza’s victory at Puebla became the rallying point.

At the first Cinco de Mayo parade, held in 1863 in Los Angeles, flags of both countries were raised side-by-side by the members of the juntas. Over the next few decades, Cinco de Mayo celebrations in America would feature Juárez’s portrait alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, uniting the U.S. and Mexico in the fight against tyranny and oppression.

Subsequent generations of immigrants began to view Cinco de Mayo as a showcase for Mexican culture rather than Mexican-American pride and solidarity. When the Chicano Movement took hold in the 1960s, Cinco de Mayo and the battle it commemorated became associated with the struggle of Mexican-Americans for civil rights and social justice.

But, as the meaning of Cinco de Mayo was evolving in America, the holiday’s importance south of the border was waning. Porfirio Díaz, who fought alongside Zaragoza at the Battle of Puebla, promoted Cinco de Mayo during his lengthy reign as Mexico’s president, which straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. But citizens eventually soured on Díaz’s authoritarian ways, and he was ousted in 1911. Cinco de Mayo became seen as a symbol of Diaz’s abuse of power, and it declined in popularity.

Nowadays in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is not a national holiday. It is primarily celebrated only in the State of Puebla, where it is an official holiday, complete with parades, re-enactments of the battle, food, music, and dance. In nearby Veracruz, where de Lorencez retreated after his defeat, businesses are closed.

But in the latter decades of the 20th century, the assimilation of people of Mexican descent in America flourished. Mexican restaurants ranging from authentic mom-and-pop taquerias to national chains serving up takes on favorites adjusted for the American palate popped up all over the country. Sensing the commercial potential, breweries began marketing Cinco de Mayo as an opportunity for people to party and consume their products.

But the holiday was sold with neither the context of the Battle of Puebla nor its importance to Mexican-Americans. As a result, possibly because of its linguistic similarity to the Fourth of July, many Americans believe Cinco de Mayo recognizes the day Mexico declared its independence from Spain, which was Sept. 16th, 1810.

Cinco de Mayo may seem like the ‘Mexican St. Patrick’s Day’, a day celebrated more fervently in America than the country of its origin. But unlike its Irish counterpart, the holiday is truly a direct expression of the Mexican-American experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Adventure starts when you say it does.

All eATLAS Adventures are designed and built by experienced eATLAS Whoa!Guides. They're always on. Always entertaining. And always ready to go.

Check out our Adventures!