Fighting the French for freedom: The history of cinco de mayo

Like many of the holidays celebrated around the world, the celebration of “el cinco de mayo” (the 5th of May) has its roots in an important moment in history that is often completely unknown to the people that continue to observe the day in modern times.  Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of this particular holiday is that it is primarily celebrated in the United States, despite its origins being purely Mexican.  


In its simplest form, the 5th of May is the day Mexican armed forces won a battle against the French in a years-long conflict that they eventually lost, resulting in three years of French rule over Mexico.  So why celebrate a high point in an otherwise bleak period of Mexican history?  And why do more people celebrate this day in the U.S. than in Mexico, where the historical battle actually took place?  It’s important to first know a bit of the history of Mexico and its people in order to answer these questions.


A Brief History of European Rule in Mexico

  • 1300s: The Mesoamerican nomadic warrior tribes that are collectively referred to as Aztecs take control of central Mexico and base the center of their empire in the city of Tenochtitlan, which is now modern-day Mexico City.

  • 1517: Francisco Hernández de Córdoba is the first European to lead an expedition to Mexico.  Many of his men are killed, and he returns to Cuba.

  • 1519: Hernán Cortés arrives in Mexico, looking for a route to Asia.

    • He decides to move inland after founding the gulf city of Veracruz, looking to overthrow the Aztecs who are now ruled by Moctezuma II.
  • The Aztecs welcome Cortés to their city.  Some sources say this was because he resembled the revered Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, whose return to the Aztecs had been proclaimed in an ancient prophecy.  Other sources say Moctezuma II wanted to use his hospitality as a means of demonstrating his power over the Spaniards.

  • Moctezuma II dies in a skirmish between the Spaniards and Aztecs, and Cortés escapes the city.

  • 1521: With other native tribes as allies, Cortés overthrows the Aztecs, destroys Tenochtitlan, drains the lake around the island that the Aztec city was built on, and builds Mexico City in the dry lake bed.

  • September 16, 1810: Father Manuel Hidalgo begins the Mexican fight for independence from Spanish colonial rule.  

    • Despite being defeated, the Mexican people still honor this as their official Independence Day.

  • 1821: Mexico finally removes itself from Spanish rule.

  • 1829: Spain attempts to take control yet again but is defeated by Mexican forces.

  • 1836: Texas declares independence from Mexico and secedes.

  • 1846: The U.S. declares war on Mexico, and after taking control of Mexico City, establishes the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.  

    • The treaty transfers ownership of New Mexico and California to the U.S.

  • 1858: Civil war erupts between liberal and conservative groups in Mexico, weakening the country even further.

  • 1861: The liberals emerge victorious under president Benito Júarez, and he decides to default on repaying debts owed to Great Britain, France, and Spain.

  • 1862: Napoleon III continues a campaign to reclaim these debts, after Britain and Spain withdraw from the fight.

  • May 5, 1862: The Mexicans win the Battle of Puebla against the French troops.

  • 1863: The French take control of Mexico City and put Maximilian, Archduke of Austria, in charge of continuing French rule over Mexico.

  • 1867: The U.S. pressures France to vacate Mexico, and Júarez reclaims the presidency, signaling the true end of centuries of colonial rule.


Now back to the Battle of Puebla, which is the main reason why the 5th of May is still recognized as an important day.  Napoleon III wanted to take control of Mexico City, due to an increasing debt that Mexico, under president Benito Júarez, owed to a handful of European countries, including France.  During the same time period, Napoleon was also forming ties with the American Confederacy and wanted to claim Mexico as a Confederate-sympathetic country to aid the American South in defeating Union troops during the American Civil War.


Having once been part of Mexico, the new American state of California had a large Mexican-American population that was strongly against the Confederacy’s principals.  The American Latino support of Union troops was simultaneously being bolstered by the concurrent fight for freedom against the French in Mexico.  This increased a sentiment of patriotism amongst California Latinos, both for their country of origin, as well as for their newly adopted country.


The Mexican win over the French at the Battle of Puebla was such an exciting moment of Mexican pride because it was a true triumph of the underdog.  The Mexicans were severely outnumbered, and the French had the advantage of more advanced weapons and horses.  The Mexicans fought fearlessly though, and upon the French’s retreat, their leader, general Ignacio Zaragoza, penned a letter to president Júarez, famously stating, “Las armas nacionales se han cubierto de gloria.”

“The national arms (weapons) have been covered with glory.”


This feeling of patriotism for a cultural identity that straddled the border of the U.S. and Mexico was revived by American-born Mexicans, often referred to as Chicanos, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.  The victory at the Battle of Puebla, one hundred years prior, gave Chicanos a moment to be fiercely proud of, especially as they felt much like the underdogs once again, fighting for their own equal rights in the U.S.


Today, el cinco de mayo is celebrated in the Mexican city of Puebla, where the battle originally occurred, as well as nearby cities like Mexico City and Cuernavaca.  The Chicano revival of this important day has continued to influence communities in California, New Mexico, Texas, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., where large cinco de mayo celebrations still occur each year.


The largest and most impressive celebration is definitely the one that occurs in Puebla on May 5th.  The Mexican president comes to the city, situated just 130 km southeast of Mexico City, to participate in a grand parade.  Members of the Mexican army present a reenactment of the historic battle, famous Mexican musicians perform, and of course there is a lot of mariachi music, dancing, and incredible food.  


The most typical dish served in Puebla for this celebration is called mole poblano.  The dish consists of a rich sauce made of peanuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, onion, garlic, tomato, chocolate, chiles, cinnamon, and other spices, which is then poured over chicken or turkey and typically served with rice and corn tortillas on the side for mopping up the delicious sauce.  Mole poblano can also be used in other dishes, such as over the top of chicken enchiladas.