Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. Mexican Independence Day is September 16, and was established 50 years before the event that Cinco de Mayo commemorates. Cinco de Mayo honors the Battle of Puebla in which Mexicans held off a better equipped and larger French force to prevent an attack on Mexico City.
However, as you lift your Corona tonight, don’t toast Mexican Independence, or even Mexican victory over the French. Instead, toast the end of the Civil War.
The Mexican-American War had destroyed Mexico’s economy and left it poor and weak. In debt to many nations, Mexico was invaded by the Brits, the French, and Spain. Having reach an agreement with Britain and Spain, Mexico showed them the door. France, however, saw a greater threat in the US and a way to resolve it through Mexico.
France invaded Mexico as a means to interfere with the civil war we were fighting. If they could take Mexico, they could use the resources there to aid the South and keep the US divided. A US spilt in two would be less a threat than a unified nation. The French tried to take Mexico City and the resulting battle at Puebla kept them from doing so.
Unable to conquer Mexico, the French were prevented from resupplying the South. This gave the North time to build up its army and eventually win the war. While certainly not the definitive cause for the North’s ultimate victory, the Battle of Puebla played more of a role in our own Civil War than it did in Mexican history. The Battle of Puebla is a footnote in Mexican history and the holiday is largely ignored anywhere but in Puebla and in the US.
To put this in perspective, imagine if the rest of the world decided to ignore our recognition of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and instead declared the date of the Battle of Bull Run to be American Independence Day. Forget the fact that Bull Run wasn’t even a battle in the Revolutionary War. Forget the fact that it was a regional skirmish that had nothing to do with the eventual outcome of the larger conflict. What you’re left with is a gross misunderstanding of the relative importance of the day within the context of the culture.
Yet every May, we declare the fifth “Mexican Independence Day” and use it as a chance to drink Mexican beer and margaritas and spend the night throwing up guacamole, chips and fajitas.
Don’t be that guy. Tonight, when you drink, toast the end of the Civil War, and give thanks to the Mexicans who helped make it all possible. That’s the best way to commemorate Cinco de Mayo.