The victorious origins of Cinco de Mayo

Behind modern Cinco de Mayo celebrations is the 1862 Battle of Puebla, a Mexican triumph over French colonial forces.

General Zaragoza’s Mexican army outside repels French forces during the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Painting by Patricio Ramos Ortega. National History Museum, Mexico City
DEA/ALBUM

Parades, brightly colored dresses, sizzling street food, festive music, and laughter fills the streets every May 5, a date circled in revolutionary red on any Mexican calendar. On May 5, 1862, a ragtag Mexican army defeated the better-equipped hosts of the Second French Empire at the Battle of Puebla. The battle itself did not decide the war—the French returned to capture Puebla and Mexico City in 1863. France controlled Mexico until 1867, when Mexican troops overthrew their government and returned to being an independent republic.

Over time, the Battle of Puebla grew in national significance. The victory strengthened the morale of a very young Mexico and became the rallying cry of resistance to foreign domination. In commemoration of this day, Cinco de Mayo began as a celebration of the French defeat, but the holiday has grown and changed with time. For Mexicans in Puebla, as well as Mexican-Americans in the United States, it has become a complex symbol of Mexican culture, resilience, and character.

To understand the Battle of Puebla, it is necessary to understand the roots of Mexico itself, going back to the 16th century. After Spain defeated the Aztec Empire in 1521, a new, blended society arose in Mexico, bringing together several different cultures. Finding a balance between its pre-Hispanic roots and new European identity proved challenging.

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