Tequila, tacos, sombreros, and guacamole everywhere! But, wait, in the U.S.!? I know we are close, but why do Americans celebrate another country’s culture for a whole day every year? What are we even celebrating – Mexico’s independence? Was guacamole invented on Cinco de Mayo? Actually, that would be worthy of a national party anywhere in the world, but the celebration is not about that.
So, what happened on Cinco de Mayo that was so important?
Let’s go back in time and to Puebla City, Mexico. It’s May 5, 1862, we are in the outskirts of the city, the first lights of the day unveil a monumental arid landscape that soon will witness an epic battle (old western music starts). The French army, considered the most powerful in the world, is camping. They are pretty sure, by that evening, they would take Puebla and pave the the way for the French to control Mexico City.
But what is the French army doing in Mexico?
Napoleon III, the French emperor who dreamt of ruling the world and extending his empire into the American continent, devised a plan to transform Mexico into a new allied empire. The goal was to counterweigh the United States increasing power and create a gateway to conquer this part of the world.
The sun is almost at the zenith, the Mexican countryside burns as much as the souls of the 6000 French soldiers, always ready for battle and armed to the teeth, led by their laureate general Lorencez. A few days before the battle, he wrote to Napoleon III that his army was so superior to Mexicans that from now on could consider himself as "owner of Mexico.”
On the other side, Zaragoza, a Texas-born general (Texas was part of Mexico until 1848), commanded an army of 4,000 volunteers with no military training, most of them barefoot and fighting with farming tools, almost no cavalry and old artillery. As the French general said "they were less in everything", even so, they bravely faced the worst possible enemy.
The thunderous roar of a cannon marked the beginning of the battle. French attacked thinking that with that single assault the defenses of Puebla would fall. They were wrong! Mexicans rejected that first charge and the Europeans had to retreat and reorganize twice. So that afternoon, with their French pride hurt and determined to take Puebla at any cost, a third charge was led with all of their power. The Mexicans fought during hours and were very weakened, defending their trenches with anything they could find, everybody on the Mexican side thought everything was lost.
Suddenly, 350 Indians armed with machetes appeared running from the left flank, starting a French disbandment, at the same time on the right flank the small Mexican cavalry charged, surrounding the French and totally winning the battle! No one could believe it, but the improvised Mexican army defeated the so-called best army in the world.
After that, France came back with 40,000 men and eventually took control of Mexico for the next five years until president Benito Juarez finally won the war in 1867.
Ok, but why this day is celebrated in the U.S.?
In 1867, Juarez victory news spread like wildfire and soon arrived to the Mexican territories lost to the U.S. in 1848, particularly for the Mexicans living there, this was very meaningful. Their national identity was now blurred, they were not Americans, so they needed to reaffirm their identity. That same year, the Mexican population in Texas decided to celebrate the Cinco de Mayo battle, also known as the Battle of Puebla.
But why that battle and not the end of the war? For a very simple reason: it was won by a Mexican born in Texas, which made them very proud. Soon these celebrations spread through all the southern states, and eventually all of the U.S. joined the celebration as it happens today.
So, this has to be a huge celebration in Mexico! Right?
Actually, no. Cinco de Mayo is a just a normal day here. After all, it’s just the start of one of many wars we fought, so we save the celebration for the 16th of September, our actual Independence Day.
Is it a good idea to visit Mexico for CINCO de mayo?
Absolutely! What can be better to celebrate Mexican culture than actually being in Mexico to learn about our history and traditions? Puebla is a great place for that. The state’s history is very rich, its cuisine is magnificent since many Mexican dishes were born here, and it’s one of the prettiest cities in Mexico. Its colonial architecture will make you feel as if you traveled to the past. The best part? It’s just a couple hours away from Mexico City. As a plus, May has the best weather out of the whole year.
Is it safe to travel to Puebla?
You will not find any epic battles around here anymore. So, the thing you have to be more careful about while visiting Puebla is of how spicy your food will be. It’s actually one of the safest cities in Mexico and there’s nothing to worry about. Just follow some basic precautions as in any other city in the world, don’t carry more cash than you actually need, don’t be flashy by exposing expensive gadgets or jewelry, try to stay in the central area of the city, and when you move around try to always use cashless apps where you can see the cost of every trip before starting.
So, come to celebrate Mexican culture in the best place possible: Mexico!