Cinco de Mayo, a celebration of Mexican culture and a very important Mexican historical event, is vastly more popular in the United States than in Mexico. In fact, while many people have the day off there, it is not a national holiday in Mexico. But in America it has grown to become one of the biggest non-official holidays on the calendar. Why and how did it rise to greater popularity in the USA than in the country of its origin? The answer to that question is an ironic case study of an event getting its honorable due but for not the most honorable reasons.

Every year, Americans all across the country put on their sombreros and their serapes and flood the thousands of Mexican restaurants that line the streets of every city and town from the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters. Yes, Mexican cuisine is wildly popular in the United States now, not just in the traditional cities and regions where Mexican immigrants are prominent but even in the most bland-palate Caucasian sectors of the Midwest and the Deep South. This is a trend that has occurred only in the past few decades as Mexican immigrants have spread across the nation. According to a survey conducted by the research firm Technomics, Mexican food is the second most popular ethnic cuisine in the U.S. just barely behind Chinese food. So no wonder that gringos are ready to go all out, swallowing up  81 million pounds of avocados and downing huge goblets of lime-juiced tequila (23 million cases) to honor the colorful culture of our southern neighbors.

But Cinco de Mayo is more than just an excuse to drink margaritas and eat guacamole. Who needs an excuse to do that anyway?! The event that began this tribute to Mexican culture, in the long run, had more significance to the United States than to Mexico. The U.S. was not involved in the event in any way, but many historians believe if it had not happened, there might not be a United States as we know it today.

If you are scratching your head in ignorance, don’t feel intellectually inferior. Most Americans do not know the original reason for the celebration of May 5th. A survey conducted in 2016 by SSRS, a social sciences research firm, revealed that only 22% of Americans knew what happened in Mexican history on that mid-Spring day to warrant a celebration. Some of you are saying, “Well that’s easy. It’s Mexico’s Day of Independence. I’ve always known that!” If so, you are not alone as that is precisely what most Americans believe. But also, if so, you are completely wrong. Mexico’s Day of Independence is celebrated on September 16th, and commemorates the day Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1810, over a half century before the event that inspired Cinco de Mayo.

Our May 5th in question was in the year 1862. French forces had invaded Mexico at Veracruz near the end of 1861 and were marching toward Mexico City under the premise of reclaiming Mexican debt that the country had recently ceased paying. But the French had greater motivations than to just get a few Francs back in their treasury. Napoleon III ruled France and he had dreams of expanding the French Empire into Latin America by quickly running over Mexico, which had been greatly weakened by the Mexican-American War and civil wars which followed it. But Napoleon’s forces were too confident and they met a much smaller but much more determined Mexican army at the small town of Puebla. The date---May 5th. The result---a resounding defeat of the French forces, considered at the time to be the best and strongest fighting force in the world. The victory for Mexico was very sweet but short lived. About a year later the French would return to capture Puebla and march to Mexico City taking over the country.

So why was this event important for the United States? Notice the date, not the May 5th part, but the year---1862. What was happening on American soil that year? The Civil War was raging and the Confederates were winning most of the battles as they moved northward toward Washington, D.C. The Union looked doomed and all resources were being consumed to stop the rebels advancing. and while France was officially neutral, they had a great need for the South's cotton and that neutrality was sometimes tested. And there is no doubt that they saw the advantage for them in a divided American nation, which would assist their plans to be the dominant empire in the Americas.

But what a difference a year makes. The Mexican victory delayed the French plans long enough for the War Between the States to shift. The Northern forces defeated Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, by all historical accounts one of the major turning points in the war. The French took Mexico City just a month earlier than that famous battle, but already the tide had turned enough for the United States to allow it to influence events down south. The French Latin “empire” would only last a few short years and, with greater threats arising on the European continent, they realized they could not support the American goals. They began to withdraw by 1866 and the Mexicans retook their capital in 1867. The French support of the Confederacy had been thwarted and the French Empire never again threatened the United States.

So, did the Mexican army help save the Union? That is a question which is difficult to answer with a resounding “Yes.” But there is no question that its victory on May 5th, 1862 came at a good time for President Lincoln and those who wanted to preserve the Union.

It is ironic that Americans have come to love this holiday but yet most don’t know its true origin and significance for the nation. While the holiday has been celebrated every year somewhere in the U.S. since the Mexican victory at Puebla, the day did not become a hugely popular event it is now until after 1980. It rose to popularity really due to marketers of beer, liquor and the restaurant industry. It was crafted as a day to celebrate Mexican culture but the importance for Americans was lost in the fun and parties.

But we are glad it has survived and thrived and hopefully more Americans will come to realize the greater significance of the day. So get your avocados ready and raise your glasses of Mexican beer and tequila to the Mexican army that stood its ground in Puebla on Cinco de Mayo!

Cinco de Mayo commemorates a Mexican historical event in which the United States had no involvement. Then why is it vastly more popular in the U.S. than in Mexico? Here's the little known story of how the Mexican army, against all odds, may have saved the USA.​


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