The Real History of Cinco de Mayo (It’s Not a Celebration of Mexico’s Independence)

Before you start making margaritas, let's settle what the holiday is really celebrating, shall we?

Many people celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. as a time for being with friends and having fun without understanding the real significance behind the history of this Mexican holiday.

First off, contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not celebrated in honor of Mexico’s independence. Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates a battle on the fifth of May that was an unexpected victory of the Mexican army over the French forces.

Mexico was attacked by foreign troops because President Benito Juárez defaulted on his payments to European nations after war had depleted the country’s ability to pay. They endured three wars which put their country in debt. In 1821, they fought for their independence from Spain; from 1846–1848 they fought against America; and in 1857 they began their own civil war.

When Mexico decided to default on its loans, France, Britain, and Spain sent troops to demand repayment. But Napoleon III had other plans to take the country and install a French monarch. Britain and Spain would not get involved with this. Six thousand French troops went up against 2,000 Mexicans in the town of Puebla on the fifth of May, 1862. Mexico was victorious. That Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day is one of the many history lessons your teacher lied to you about.

Napoleon III later returned with more forces and installed Arch Duke Maximillian to rule. “Cinco de Mayo” became the rallying cry for the fight against the French occupation. They celebrated each year with song, dance, and food to remain focused on regaining the country and retaining their heritage.

Mexico finally won their independence in 1867 when Arch Duke Maximillian was overthrown. Arch Duke Maximillian was executed in 1867. The bullet-riddled shirt that the ruler fell in is on display for all to see in Mexico City to commemorate the moment of victory. Now that you know its history, find out 17 more things you never knew about Cinco de Mayo.