Cinco de Mayo – Commemorating Mexico’s victory against French Imperialism

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862

Perhaps one of the most celebrated adopted holidays in the United States and one that is often misunderstood is the celebration of Cinco de Mayo which has its roots in Mexico.  It has now become a more popular holiday in the United States than in Mexico.


Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.  Puebla is a state located in East-Central Mexico, bordered by the state of Veracruz to the north and east.

Puebla is a state located in East-Central Mexico, bordered by the state of Veracruz to the north and east

The Battle of Puebla in 1862 happened during one of the worst times in Mexico’s economy.  First, Mexico had finally gained independence from Spain in 1821 after a difficult and bloody struggle.  Second, Mexico had just undergone a number of internal political takeovers and wars, including the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).  And finally, the Mexican Civil War of 1858 had ruined the national economy.


During this period of economic struggle Mexico accumulated heavy debts with several nations, including Spain, England, and France.  As a result, these three countries started demanding repayment.  Coincidentally at that time, France was eager to expand its empire and used Mexico’s debt issue to move forward with goals of establishing its own leadership in the country.  Realizing France’s intent towards empire expansion, Spain and England withdrew their support from the area.  Once Mexico stopped making any loan payments, France took action on its own to install Napoleon III’s relative, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, as ruler of Mexico.


Late in 1861, France started their invasion at the gulf coast of Mexico, along the state of Veracruz.  They marched towards Mexico City, planning to take over the country.  Meanwhile, the United States took a neutral stand during this conflict. President Abraham Lincoln’s attention was focused on its own Civil War at the time and was unable to provide any direct assistance.


The French army began their move towards Mexico City but encountered heavy resistance on the way there from the Mexicans close to Puebla; specifically at the Mexican forts of Loreto and Guadalupe.  A 6,000 strong French army attacked the much smaller and poorly equipped Mexican army of 2,000.  On May 5, 1862, the Mexican army managed to decisively crush the French army whom was then considered “the premier army in the world.”

Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862

Although not considered a total victory, Napoleon III tried to retaliate by sending more troops overseas and invaded Mexico again.  With 30,000 more troops and a full year later the French were able to defeat the Mexican army and take over Mexico City, effectively installing Archduke Maximilian of Austria as the ruler of Mexico.


Once again the French victory was short-lived as it only lasted three years, from 1864-1867.  Although the United States political stand towards Mexico’s conflict with the French was neutral, United States did express support in 1865 and was even inspired by how the Mexican army, with a soldier ratio of 2 to 1, was able to defeat the French during the Battle of Puebla.


Upon conclusion of the U.S. Civil War, Napoleon III, facing a persistent Mexican guerilla resistance, the threat of war with Prussia, and a possible conflict with the United States, decided to retreat from Mexico starting in 1866.  Mexicans recaptured Mexico City, and Maximilian I –Archduke Maximilian of Austria – was apprehended and executed, along with his Mexican generals Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía, in the Cerro de las Campanas, Querétaro.  On June 5, 1867, Benito Juarez, exiled Mexican President reentered Mexico City where he installed a legitimate government and reorganized his administration.

Mexican President Benito Juárez

In Mexico the commemoration of the Battle of Puebla is not observed as a national holiday but in the State of Puebla, where the battle actually took place, it is recognized as an official holiday.  In the State of Veracruz, where the French first arrived, it is also considered a full holiday and thus it is a No Work day.


In the United States, there is some confusion regarding the significance of this Mexican holiday.  Cinco de Mayo is often mistaken as being the Mexican Independence Day which takes place on September 16th.  Regardless of the constant confusion, Cinco de Mayo has now become more of a popular holiday in the United States than in Mexico where it has its roots.


In the United States Cinco de Mayo is often celebrated by promoting products and services focused on Mexican foods, beverages, and festivities.  Several cities throughout the U.S. hold parades and concerts during the week leading up to May 5th.


Watch this short two-minute video for additional information about the history behind Cinco de Mayo

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There are 7 comments

  1. Ted Lee Eubanks

    Nice account. The only glaring omission (glaring to a native Texan) is that you failed to mention that the Mexican troops in the Battle of Puebla were commanded by General Ignacio Zaragoza. Zaragoza was born and raised in Bahía del Espíritu Santo (now Goliad, Texas). In other words, this victory for Mexico came under the command of a Texan.

    1. La Potosina

      Thank you for bringing this up, General Zaragoza was born in 1829 before Texas became part of the United States whether Mexican or Texan his military accomplishments do not go unnoticed. An entire new post could be written about him and probably will include this in my future posts.

  2. omobtomtom

    Great info! All I knew prior to this was the battle in Puebla and Mexico winning against the French but not the additional backstory. Thanks for sharing 🙂 Gracias!

  3. MLL69

    Yep, when I lived in Spain I learned this story, and every Cinco de Mayo I used to roll my eyes and explain to everyone that Spain had nothing to do with this festivity. I think the French probably have no idea.

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