Cinco de Mayo commemorates the crown jewel of Mexican military victories: the day troops led by General Ignacio Zaragoza gloriously defeated what was deemed a vastly superior French army, stopping them in their bid to invade the country, near the city of Puebla, on May 5, 1862.
It is revered in Mexico as a story of victory against the odds, when Napoleon III’s dream of an empire in the new world was stopped by an army they outnumbered, and considered beneath them in discipline, ability and race. The French commander Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Count of Lorencez, was so convinced of his superiority he sought to conquer the city of Puebla by overcoming the forts of Guadalupe and Loreto — the hardest path — and from there move on to seize Mexico City. The strategy led to a resounding defeat for the French, and in Zaragoza’s words, a time when Mexico’s “national arms have been covered with glory.”
Word of the victory spread north, to the Mexican border and to migrants in the United States, who celebrated both their country’s achievement and its implications. At the time, the United States were in the midst of the Civil War, and many Latinos supported Abraham Lincoln for representing democracy and opposing slavery. Had Napoleon III prevailed, a conservative force would have overthrown democracy south of the United States’ border, imposing a government favoring the confederacy when no clear victor was yet in sight.
Over time, the underlying meaning of Cinco de Mayo was rekindled by many Latinos, still treasuring the same values and dreaming of equality and freedom. Today, the anniversary has joined the U.S. celebratory mainstream, and though the manner of the celebrations may diverge, and meanings might get muddled, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated on both sides of the Rio Grande. Perhaps, for Chicanos, this bond is best personified by that day’s military hero, Ignacio Zaragoza, born in the small Mexican town of Bahía del Espíritu Santo — now Goliat, Texas — a fellow Texano who knows what it’s like when the border crosses you.
EVENTS AND SITES TO VISIT ON CINCO DE MAYO IN AND AROUND MEXICO CITY
- In honor of the victory it witnessed 154 years ago, the city of Puebla holds a yearly parade and festival, featuring floats, bands and dancers.
- Listen to Mexican Cumbia music at the Lunario forum with the bands Sonido Gallo Negro and Sonido La Changa.
- Visit the “Museo de Arte Popular” (“Popular Art Museum”) to get to know the work of Mexico’s astounding arts and craftsmen.
- Visit the famous National Museum of Anthropology, to discover centuries of history prior to Cinco de Mayo.
The Cinco de Mayo Parade on May 5 2015. Video: Pueblaonlinevideos/Youtube