What is Cinco de Mayo?

Every country has defining moments in its national history. Many of them are famous battles that were pivotal in a nation’s struggle for independence and self-governance. Most are victories at amazing odds against foreign aggressors.

Students of history may recall some of these events such as when the Greeks defeated the Persian invaders at Salamis in 480 BCE, or the Battle of Tours, where the Kingdom of Franks repelled an invasion of Spanish Moors in 732. Likewise, the Celts of the world will forever remember Clontarf and Bannockburn as famous battles where the Irish and Scots repelled Norse and English aggressors.

Here in the United States, many of its citizens have no idea that the battles of Trenton and Guildford Courthouse in 1776 and 1781 were the most important turning points in our young nation’s struggle against the British.

Many North Americans incorrectly assume Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday not unlike our Independence Day/Fourth of July holiday. Mexico’s Independence Day is actually celebrated on September 16.

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the May 5, 1862, victory by Mexican and Indian forces over the occupying army of the French-backed puppet government of the Hapsburg princeling, Maximilian III. The battle is known as La Batalla de Puebla or The Battle of Puebla.

Under the leadership of (Tejas-born) Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, 5,000 Mestizo and Zapotec Indian infantry and cavalry faced and defeated superior French forces at two to one odds. At that time, the French were one of the best equipped and drilled armies in the world. It was France’s first military defeat in nearly 50 years.

With roots in California in the late 1860s, today’s Cinco de Mayo is best recognized as a date to celebrate the heritage, culture and pride of Americans of Mexican ancestry. In the Southwest and along the West Coast, many of us celebrate or cheerfully observe Cinco de Mayo. Like Saint Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo has taken on a significance in the United States well beyond most observances in its native country.

American celebrations include traditional Mexican symbols, such as the Mexican flag and the Virgen de Guadalupe and feature regional music and dancing, including mariachi and ballet folklórico and traditional Mexican food and beverages.

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