No Es El Grito: Cinco de Mayo History Cheat Sheet

Let’s skip past the obvious sombrero/sarape jokes and get straight to the point: far too many people have no clue what Cinco de Mayo is all about nor how it came to be. For the sake of brevity, I present a brief history cheat-sheet on the history and development of the Cinco de Mayo celebration.

From Francine Prose’s article, Savoring Puebla for Smithsonian Magazine:

Like the rest of Mexico, Puebla has had a troubled history marked by war, invasions and revolutions. Several important military confrontations took place there, most famously the Battle of the Fifth of May, Cinco de Mayo, commemorated in a holiday that has assumed great significance for Mexicans living outside their own country. At the battle, which occurred not far from Puebla’s center, on May 5, 1862, the Mexican Army defeated the French with the aid of local troops. Unfortunately, the French returned a year later and smashed the Mexican forces and occupied Mexico until they were defeated by Benito Juárez in 1867.

Artwork depicting the Battle of Puebla. Courtesy of Artist unknown.

From Franscisco Macias’ guest post at the Library of Congress’ blog:

No, May 5th is not Mexican Independence Day.  Mexico’s independence is celebrated on September 16th and shouldn’t be confused with the holiday of May 5th.   The celebration of “Cinco de Mayo” commemorates the “Battle of Puebla” (May 5, 1862).  In this battle, Mexican forces led by Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín (from what is now the city of Goliad, Texas, which was then once the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas), against all odds, defeated the French intervention forces of Napoleon III (led by Charles Lorencez) and forced them to retreat.  This was not the end of the French intervention in Mexico.  In fact, after this battle, additional French forces were sent to Mexico; and Mexico City and the state of Puebla were captured by the French.  Maximilian of Habsburg then became Emperor of Mexico during the Mexico’s Second Imperial period.

Maximilian of Habsburg, French Emperor of Mexico (10 April 1864 – 19 Jun 1867). Courtesy of

From David E. Hayes-Bautista and Cynthia L. Chamberlain’s research paper Cinco de Mayo’s First Seventy-Five Years in Alta California: From Spontaneous Behavior to Sedimented Memory, 1862 – 1937 for The Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture:

In the last week of May 1862, Latinos living in California picked up the Spanish-language newspaper La Voz de Mejico, published in San Francisco, and read reports directly from Mexico that indicated that during the late afternoon of May 8, 1862, Alejo Ruiz, forward observer for the Mexican Army of the East, had peered from his observation deck high above the cathedral tower, trying to discern the intent of the French Army still visible outside the gates and on the hills around Puebla. After successfully repulsing four French attempts to take the city on May 5, Mexican forces had been gathered on the main plaza and the neighboring forts of Guadalupe and Loreto, eagerly awaiting another encounter with the battered former victors of Solferino, who by then had been fighting for three days without taking Puebla. Since noon, Mexican troops under General Tomas Mejia had formed a line of battle in front of the once-feared French led by General Count Charles Ferdinand de Lorencez. Mexican Army morale was reportedly high, the soldiers’ spirits soaring. They had been spoiling for the decisive encounter. They could not know, but the actions they were taking were to have an enormous, electrifying effect on Latinos – Mexican, Californios, Central Americans, South Americans – living in far-away Alto California, not only then, but for generations to come.

General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín. Courtesy of

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