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Mexican Culture - Cinco De Mayo History, And Celebrations In Mexico And The U.S.

Updated on December 24, 2012

Cinco De Mayo History

Cinco de Mayo is a holiday celebrated every year on the 5th of May in those parts of the United States with a significant population of Mexican heritage, and in Mexico, mostly in the town of Puebla. Which is where it celebrates the victory of a Mexican militia, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, against superior French forces on May 5th, 1862, at the battle of Puebla.

How To Celebrate Cinco De Mayo?

It's a good time to try traditional Mexican dishes, and you can find loads of Mexican recipes here.

Drinks? Mexican beers are a good choice, as are margaritas. You could also try agua de jamaica, or hibiscus tea, an infusion made from the sepals of Jamaica flowers, or hibiscus, which can be found in Mexican groceries.

Women's traditional dress runs to brightly coloured dresses, and shawls. Men dress in typical western wear, like embroidered shirts, ponchos and sombreros, and jeans.

Footwear? Go with cowboy boots, of course. Or maybe these bad boys. Yeah, you're smilin'. But you want to try them on. Maybe stop by work in them, impress the ladies. Take a stroll, so they can check you out.

How To Celebrate Cinco De Mayo

Cinco De Mayo

Cinco de Mayo fireworks celebration
Cinco de Mayo fireworks celebration | Source

What Led Up To Cinco De Mayo?

Cinco de Mayo has its historical roots in the nineteenth century French occupation of Mexico, which came about in the aftermath of wars that had left the country bankrupt.

As a result of this, in 1861 Mexican President Benito Juárez suspended all foreign debt payments for two years. France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand repayment. While the British and Spanish forces negotiated and withdrew, France decided to use the argument as an excuse to establish an empire in Mexico by force. The realpolitik behind this decision being to install a French military presence on the southern border of the USA while they were dealing with their own civil war, to hold the developing nation in check and maintain France's superpower status.

Cinco De Mayo History - The French Invasion Of 1861

The French fleet attacked Veracruz in 1861, and landed a large French force which drove President Juárez and his government into retreat. By early March, the French army was ready to march on Mexico City.

General Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Count of Laurencez*, led the French forces. Laurencez, a Crimean War veteran, thought the Mexican army would be a pushover.

Early on May 5, 1862, the French advanced towards Puebla. General Ignacio Zaragoza was ordered to defend Juarez with his 4,500 troops - many of them farm workers, armed with ancient rifles and machetes.

The French had 6,000 men, better armed and equipped than the Mexicans, from a French army which was considered the best in the world at that time. The Mexicans held the city of Puebla and its two forts, Loreto and Guadalupe.

* Researching this article online, I found General Latrille's title spelt two ways, Laurencez and Lorencez. In time honoured tradition, I picked one and ran with it.

Cinco De Mayo Today. Mmmm.

Cinco de Mayo at Twin Peaks. I approve of this hat.
Cinco de Mayo at Twin Peaks. I approve of this hat. | Source

Cinco de Mayo Celebrations in the USA

As you might expect, Texas, where Zaragoza came from, takes its Cinco de Mayo celebrations seriously, as does most of Southern California, with its high concentration of people of Mexican heritage.

Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the USA pretty much anywhere you can find a significant population of Mexican heritage. In Denver, the festival lasts two days and pulls around 400,000 visitors, who come for, among other things, the great live music, from Mexican regional to Tex-Mex, and Latin jazz.

Douglas Park in Chicago draws up to 200,000 people to its Cinco de Mayo festival. Omaha celebrates with a parade, and the crowning of a queen. In Phoenix, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated all over the desert area.

Cinco De Mayo History - The French Attack

Laurencez chose to attack, and unwisely decided on a direct assault. He ordered his men to charge the strongest part of the Mexican's defences - Guadalupe fortress, which stood on a hill overlooking the city. This would prove to be a major mistake.

The French cavalry advanced on the slope of Guadalupe Hill through ditches and over muddy farm land, and, exhausted, failed to reach its goal.

The French artillery moved into position and began shelling Mexican defensive positions. Laurencez ordered his infantry to attack - and three times the Mexicans fought them off. By the third attack, the French artillery was out of ammunition, and their final assault had no artillery support.

The third wave of French infantry was forced to retreat, through the rain which had begun and now hampered their movements. With no French artillery to stop them, General Zaragoza, with no experience in classical military tactics, but a guerrilla warfare veteran, ordered his cavalry to attack the retreating French troops, whose orderly retreat became a rout.

The French fled to Orizaba, where Zaragoza's second attack forced them to flee to the coast. The victory was a huge morale boost for the Mexican army and people. A ragtag collection of farm hands and ill equipped soldiers, outnumbered and outgunned, had beaten the best army in the world.

Learn About Cinco de Mayo

Cinco De Mayo Party Decorations

If you're planning a party for Cinco de Mayo, you'll need to decorate. You can dress any party area quickly with paper lanterns and coloured paper flowers, the assembly of which will keep the kids quiet for an hour or two. And pinatas will provide entertainment when the party livens up...

- Which it surely will if you take care of the party music. Have some mariachi on hand to entertain the crowd. And you can find all the mariachi you'll ever need right here.

Cinco De Mayo History - French Victory, And Defeat

The Mexican victory was short-lived. Within a year, the French returned with an army 30,000 strong, captured Mexico City, and installed Emperor Maximilian I as ruler of Mexico.

But the French victory also failed. With the US Civil War over by 1865, Mexico's northern neighbour provided troops and arms to help expel the French, in 1867. And Maximilian and his generals were executed.

Cinco De Mayo History - Death Of A Hero

Later in 1862, Zaragoza went to Mexico City, to be feted as a hero. On his return to Puebla, he caught typhoid, and died there on September 8, 1862.

His state funeral was held in Mexico City. President Juárez issued a decree changing the name of Puebla de los Angeles to Puebla de Zaragoza, and making Cinco de Mayo a national holiday. Zaragoza became one of Mexico's national heroes. Songs were written in his honor, and schools, plazas, and streets renamed either Zaragoza or Cinco de Mayo.

Each year on the anniversary of the battle, Zaragoza societies meet throughout Mexico and Texas. An historic site was established to commemorate Zaragoza's birthplace, at Bahía del Espíritu Santo, near present day Goliad, and a bronze statue honouring Zaragoza was erected in Goliad State Historical Park.

Cinco de Mayo
Cinco de Mayo

It's a story that began on a sweltering morning, May 5, 1862, in the city of Puebla, Mexico and surrounding forts, when an ill-equipped Mexican Army, along with Zacapoaxtla Indians and regular citizens, beat the invading French Army.



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