As many Americans across the country celebrate Thursday, May 5, with Mexican food and mariachi bands, some may be surprised to learn that Cinco de Mayo in fact does not commemorate Mexican Independence Day (which actually occurs on September 16).
Cinco de Mayo instead commemorates the Mexican army's unlikely defeat of French troops led by Napoleon III during the Battle of the Puebla on May 5, 1862. Having failed to pay back war debts to European countries, France, Britain, and Spain had finally come to Mexico to collect on the then 52-year-old country's debt. Britain and Spain negotiated and withdrew their troops, but France tried to stake claim on Mexican territory.
Confident that they would succeed, 6,000 French troops stormed Puebla de Los Angeles, while Mexican President Benito Juarez, who had been forced to retreat following a French attack on the Mexican capital of Veracruz, gathered a motley team of 2,000. With far fewer supplies than their well-armed opponent, the Mexican forces lost fewer than 100 soldiers, while the French lost almost 500. After fighting from dawn and through the day, French forces retreated in the evening.
But many Americans not of Mexican descent are oblivious to Cinco de Mayo's history, which may be why May 5 is celebrated more widely in the United States than in Mexico, where it's a fairly minor holiday.
In many US cities, where Cinco de Mayo is observed with parades, mariachi music, and festivals, the holiday is a celebration of Mexican culture – as it has been since the 1960s, when Mexican-Americans began to raise awareness of it.
"The reason it became more popular [in the US during that time] was in part because of the Good Neighbor policy," said Jose Alamillo, an ethnic studies professor at Washington State University, to National Geographic.
Originally a product of the Roosevelt administration, the Good Neighbor Policy concentrated on positive, reciprocal exchanges with countries in Latin America. "Cinco de Mayo's purpose was to function as a bridge between these two cultures," said Dr. Alamillo.
According to a Pew report, 11 percent of the American population is of Mexican origin, and Mexicans account for 64 percent of all Latinos in the United States. As of 2012, 33.7 million people of Mexican origin resided in the United States – about the same size as the entire population of Morocco. That includes 11.4 million immigrants and 22.3 million people of Mexican descent born in the United States.
The Mexican-American population has grown rapidly over the past generation. In 1970, the United States had fewer than 1 million Mexican immigrants, which rose to a high of 12.5 million in 2008. In the past nine years, the Mexican-born population has declined, as the influx of immigrants from Mexico has slowed. Now at least half of all Mexican-Americans born in the United States have at least one parent born in Mexico.
As the day celebrates Mexico's victory over the invaders' efforts to make them a French colony, Cinco de Mayo's "anti-imperialist" message has broad appeal, experts say.
"As a community, we are tough and committed, and we believe that we can prevail," said Robert Con Davis-Undiano, Chicano studies professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. "Mexican Americans, other Latinos, and literally everyone can feel proud and motivated by that message."