Today marks the 154th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo, a bicultural celebration that has become synonymous with margaritas, cervezas (beer) and the occasional controversy. But we found most people don’t know the real story behind this holiday.
So here are five facts that will probably surprise you about Cinco de Mayo:
1. It’s not Mexico’s Independence Day: Cinco de Mayo commemorates the triumph of the Mexican army at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. This victory occurred over 50 years after Mexico’s Independence Day, which is celebrated on September 16.
“The significance of Cinco de Mayo is that it represents Mexican resistance to foreign intervention, it is a moment where Mexico as a young nation rallied to defend itself,” said Raul Ramos, Associate Professor of History at the University of Houston. “But it was not a struggle for independence. Instead it represented a struggle against imperialism.”
Ramos noted that prior to the first Cinco de Mayo, Mexico was a nation with strong regional differences, from the Pacific coast to Northern Mexico to the Yucatan. “The Battle of Puebla helped the country coalesce around the idea of a unified Mexican identity.”
2. Cinco de Mayo commemorates a military victory over France — not Spain. Why was Mexico at war with France? Because the Mexican government had defaulted on its foreign debt to several European countries, so France invaded our southern neighbor.
Napoleon III hoped to install a monarchy in Mexico (which he was able to do for a few years before Mexico ousted the French). “The French army was considered the best army in the world at the time, and they had not been defeated in decades,” Professor Margarita Sánchez of Wagner College told NBC News. “So this was a real David versus Goliath situation that inspired Mexicans at home and in the U.S.”
3. Cinco de Mayo is a bigger celebration in the U.S. than in Mexico. “Recent Mexican immigrants are often surprised at what a huge thing Cinco de Mayo has become here,” said Sánchez. “They do celebrate the holiday in Mexico, but it is only a big deal in Puebla.”