Cinco de Mayo: A salute to our Mexican neighbors

Français : Poste - États-Unis - Cinco de Mayo

Français : Poste – États-Unis – Cinco de Mayo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Americans love to party. If we don’t have something to celebrate we find excuses. Two of the biggest party days of the year just happen to celebrate countries known for their libations. This Saturday we will salute our neighbor to the south with Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

On March 17 we honor Ireland with green beer and whiskey and on May 5 we honor Mexico with tequila, tacos, and margaritas. These days are marked with lots of drinking and eating special foods but mostly drinking. The same people who were running around wearing buttons saying “Kiss me I’m Irish” in March will be wearing sombreros and tossing back shots of tequila this Saturday. This is just as the marketers for the alcohol companies planned. They were instrumental in promoting these two holidays beyond their original meanings. (For the true meaning of St. Patrick’s Day and its history seeWho Was St. Patrick? (

What is Cinco de Mayo?

But, what is Cinco de Mayo and why do Americans celebrate it more than the Mexicans themselves? In Mexico it is more of a regional celebration with most of the observances located in Puebla where the incident occurred. Contrary to what most Americans think, it is not the Mexican celebration of independence (that is Sept. 16). In Spanish, Cinco de Mayo means the fifth of May and it marks the day in 1862 when a ragtag army successfully defended the town of Puebla against a much larger and better equipped French army. If it weren’t for what happened that day most of Mexico and the U.S. could be speaking French today.

Why Americans don’t speak French

The year is 1862 and while the U.S. is embroiled in the Civil War, Mexico is weakened after years of fighting the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the Mexican Civil War of 1858, and the Reform Wars in 1860. With a treasury nearly bankrupt, Mexican president Benito Juarez announces a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years. In response to this announcement, France, Britain, and Spain sent their naval forces to Veracruz to demand reimbursement. Spain and Britain negotiated a settlement but France’s ruler, Napoleon III, saw an opportunity to establish an empire in Mexico and the U.S. by giving aid and support to the Confederate south.

Historians argue that France’s real goal was to break up the American Union by aiding the Confederacy. Many feel Napoleon planned to use Mexico as a base to back the Confederacy. Lincoln and his secretary of state remained neutral in the Mexican situation knowing they could not fight both the Confederacy and France at the same time.

Importance of the Puebla victory

When the Mexican army of only 4,000 defeated the French army twice its size (8,000) and better equipped, this gave a tremendous morale boost to the weary Mexicans. It also kept Napoleon III from supplying the Confederates which gave the U.S. more time to build a more powerful army. The renewed army eventually defeated the Confederates at Gettysburg 14 months later which then led to a quick end of the Civil War.

So Saturday, when you go to your favorite Mexican restaurant remember there is a very good reason to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Without that small band of Mexicans gallantly standing up against some of the best trained soldiers in the world it could have meant the downfall of not only Mexico but also the U.S. Let’s lift a glass and say gracias to our Latin neighbors for without them we could be saying, “Parlez-vous francais?”