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The Real History of Cinco de Mayo (It’s Not a Celebration of Mexico’s Independence)

Before you make those margaritas, let’s be clear on what we’re actually celebrating, shall we?

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Mexican flag for Cinco de MayoPhoto: Shutterstock

The Real History of Cinco de Mayo

Many people celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the United States as a time for being with friends and having fun without understanding the real significance behind the history of this Mexican holiday.

First off, contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not in honour of Mexico’s independence. It actually commemorates a battle on the fifth of May that was an unexpected victory of the Mexican army over the French forces.

Mexico was attacked by foreign troops because President Benito Juarez defaulted on his payments to European nations after war had depleted the country’s ability to pay. They endured three wars which put their country in debt. In 1821, they fought for their independence from Spain, in 1846 they fought against America, and in 1857 they began their own civil war.

When Mexico decided to default on its loans, France, Britain and Spain sent troops to demand repayment. But Napoleon III had other plans: take the country and install a French monarch. Britain and Spain would not get involved with this. Six-thousand French troops went up against 2,000 Mexicans in the town of Puebla on the fifth of May, 1862. Mexico was victorious, but Napoleon III later returned with more forces and installed Archduke Maximilian to rule.

“Cinco de Mayo” became the rallying cry for the fight against the French occupation. They celebrated each year with song, dance, and food to remain focused on regaining the country and retaining their heritage.

Mexico finally won their independence in 1867 when Archduke Maximilian was overthrown. Archduke Maximilian was executed in 1867. The bullet-riddled shirt that the ruler fell in is on display for all to see in Mexico City to commemorate the moment of victory.

Want to celebrate the right way? Check out these gorgeous Mexican destinations.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest