The History of Cinco de Mayo

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Podcast Transcript

Every year Mexico and Mexican culture are celebrated during the holiday of Cinco de Mayo, which in Spanish just means May 5th. 

However, many people, especially those outside of Mexico, have no idea what exactly is being celebrated on May 5, and many of those who think they know have the wrong idea.

The location of most of the Cinco de Mayo celebrations is also surprising to most people as well.

Learn more about Cinco de Mayo and the real reason for the celebration on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If you live in Mexico, there is a very good chance that you know historically what Cinco de Mayo is all about. If you live in the United States, you might just generally know it as a Mexican holiday. If you live outside of North America, there is a good chance you might have never heard of it at all. 

Cinco de Mayo has largely become a celebration of Mexican culture and of Mexico. Many people outside of Mexico think that Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican independence day. However, it is not. 

Mexican Independence Day, or Día de la Independencia, is actually on September 16th. 

So, if it isn’t a celebration of Mexican independence, what exactly is being celebrated on May 5th? 

Cinco de Mayo, or the Fifth of May, is a holiday that commemorates the Mexican army’s victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

To understand why this victory was so important and was celebrated, it is necessary to know the events surrounding the Battle of Puebla.

Mexico had achieved its independence from Spain a full 50 years earlier, in 1810. 

As with most newly independent countries in the Western Hemisphere, Mexico had a hard time financially in its first few decades of existence and was under the burden of heavy debt. 

In particular, Mexico had fought two costly wars. The Mexican-American war with the United States, and the Reform War, which was a civil war regarding the role of the Catholic Church in Mexico. 

These wars left Mexico bankrupt, and on July 17, 1861, Mexican President Benito Juarez declared a two-year moratorium on the payment of foreign debts owed to European nations. This gave Mexico a bit of breathing room, but it also, obviously, angered the Europeans. 

France, Britain, and Spain joined together to send naval and military forces to Mexico’s largest port on the Atlantic, Vera Cruz.

Mexico eventually reached a negotiated settlement with Britain and Spain for the removal of troops and the repayment of debt. 

However, France, under the leadership of Napoleon III, saw this as an opportunity to establish a French-controlled government in Mexico. This would allow France an opportunity to reestablish a presence and influence in the Americas, which they haven’t really had since their loss at The Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec almost a century earlier.

In late 1861, French forces landed in Vera Cruz, where they pushed out the Mexican forces defending the city. 

They began to advance toward Mexico City but met fierce resistance along the way near the city of Puebla. 

The Mexican forces near Pueba, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, were largely of local indigenous men who were poorly equipped, poorly trained, and vastly outnumbered. 

On May 5th, 1862, the Mexican forces under General Zaragoza met the Frech, under the leadership of General Charles de Lorencez, at the battle of Puebla. 

The exact numbers aren’t known, but the Mexicans were outnumbered somewhere between two or three, to one. 

Despite being poorly equipped, trained, and outnumbered, the Mexicans won a surprising victory. The Mexicans had 83 killed, whereas the French lost 462 men.

News of the victory quickly spread across Mexico, where it resulted in a massive boost in morale. 

Just four days after the battle, on May 9, President Juárez declared that the anniversary of the battle would be a Mexican National Holiday known as “Battle of Puebla Day” or “Battle of Cinco de Mayo.”

While the Battle of Puebla was a great victory for the Mexicans, it was short-lived. The next year, the French landed in Mexico with 30,000 troops and managed to install an Austrian archduke as Maximilian I, Emperor of Mexico. 

However, French influence over Mexico itself was short-lived, as Maximilian only ruled from April 1864 until his execution by the Mexican Republic on June 19, 1867.

The story of Maximilian I and his subsequent downfall is for another episode. 

After the Battle of Puebla, north of the border in the United States, there was still a large Mexican presence who had a vested interest in what was happening in Mexico. 

In 1863, on the first anniversary of the battle, Mexican miners, along with Americans working in California, had a big celebration as they didn’t want to see Mexico dominated by the French.   

This was taking place in the middle of the Civil War, and the fight for Mexican freedom was seen in a similar light as the fight for freedom taking place in the United States. The celebration was used to raise money and recruit men to go and fight the French. 

This was the first Cinco de Mayo celebration in California, which started an annual tradition amongst the Mexican community living there. 

With regards to the celebration of Cinco de Mayo south of the border, the next big event took place in 1876 when Porfirio Díaz became the president of Mexico. 

Diaz was the de facto dictator of Mexico for over 30 years, a period in Mexican history known as the Porfiriato. 

It just so happened that Diaz was a young officer who served at the Battle of Puebla. 

Because of his involvement, Diaz heavily promoted the celebration of Cinco de Mayo. It became not just a celebration of Mexico but also a celebration of himself. 

After the fall of Diaz in 1911, the celebration of Cinco de Mayo quickly fell out of favor in Mexico because of its close personal association with Diaz.

However, in the United States, particularly in California, the day never became tainted with the personality of Porfirio Díaz. The day continued to be a celebration of the Battle of Puebla and a general celebration of Mexico and Mexican culture 

After world war two, the day was adopted by Mexican-American groups in California as a day to celebrate their cultural identity and pride. 

In the 50s and 60s celebration of the day spread to other US cities with large Mexican-American populations. There would usually be parades, parties, and speeches by notable officials. 

In the 1970s the holiday, as all holidays do, became commercialized. Beer companies latched on to Cinco de Mayo as a new reason to go out and drink. There was also an explosion in Mexican restaurants in the US during this period, all of which had a vested reason in promoting the holiday to bring in customers. 

Today, Cinco de Mayo is hardly celebrated in Mexico at all. The only place where there are major celebrations are in the State of Puebla, where the battle took place, along with smaller celebrations in Vera Cruz. 

Cinco de Mayo is mostly a Mexican-American holiday now, not a Mexican one. 

To this extent, the holiday most similar to Cinco de Mayo would be Saint Patrick’s Day. While Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated in Ireland, it was Irish-Americans who really took the idea and ran with it, turning it into a general celebration of Ireland and Irish culture. 

Many people use it as an excuse to go to an Irish pub to drink. 

Likewise, Cinco de Mayo, while originally celebrated in Mexico, is now mostly a day celebrating Mexican culture, developed by Mexican-Americans in the United States. 

Many people use it as an excuse to go to a Mexican restaurant to drink Mexican beers, margaritas, and various tequilas. 

It isn’t an official holiday anywhere other than the State of Puebla, but that doesn’t stop it from being celebrated. Over 100 cities in the United States have organized Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and there is usually something done by the President of the United States to acknowledge the day. 

Before I close, I should use this opportunity to give the history of one of the foods most associated with Cinco de Mayo: nachos. 

Nachos are not traditional Mexican food. They are more accurately a Mexican-American dish, and their origin story is very specific and well documented. 

In 1943, during the middle of World War II, the wives of soldiers stationed at Fort Duncan in the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas, would cross the border into Piedras Negras, Mexico, to go shopping. 

One of the women, Mamie Finan, was a regular at a restaurant in Piedras Negras called the Victory Club. One day she brought several of her friends over to the Victory Club for something to eat.

There was a problem. The chef had left for the day, and the maître d, Ignacio Anaya, had to find something to serve the women. Here I should note that the nickname for people named Ignacio is often “nacho.”

Ignacio went into the kitchen to find something to serve the women. He found some freshly made corn tortillas, so he fried them, and then covered them with freshly shredded Colby cheese from Wisconsin, melted the cheese, and then placed a single sliced jalapeño pepper.

The women loved it. When they asked Ignacio what it was called, he just shrugged and said, “Well, I guess we can just call them Nacho’s Special.”

The name nacho stuck, but the interesting thing is that nachos wasn’t originally plural for nacho, it was a possessive apostrophe ‘s’, as in belonging to nacho. 

Given their simplicity, nachos spread rapidly. The original recipe from Ignacio Anaya was published in 1954 and in the 1960s were being served at Mexican restaurants throughout Texas.

Nachos were introduced to California in 1959 by a waitress named Carmen Rocha who worked at the El Cholo Spanish Cafe in Los Angeles. 

In 1976, the Texas Rangers began selling what they called ‘ballpark nachos’, which was just corn chips with a cheese saunce poured over it.  On September 4, 1978, sportscaster Howard Cosell mentioned eating nachos in a game between the Baltimore Colts and Dallas Cowboys. 

Nachos, like Cinco de Mayo, both technically have Mexican origins but really were developed and took off in the United States. 

So, on this Cinco de Mayo, wherever you happen to be, take some time to enjoy some Mexican food and music, but also take a moment to think of the battle of Puebla, and how a superior French army was defeated by several thousand scrappy Mexican fighters. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

In the episode about Galaxies, I read a review from a listener in Norway and mentioned that we have now unlocked the Norway badge, but we still had several other country badges to unlock. 

Many of you answered the call, especially over on Spotify where you left comments for the episode. 

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Danke vielmal, Vladimir. You have unlocked the Swiss badge, and we can now start planning the construction of the Completionist Club compound in the Alps. 

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