Cinco de Mayo, (Spanish for “Fifth of May”), national holiday in Mexico commemorating the Mexican Army’s defeat of French forces on May 5, 1862, in the Batalla de Puebla (Battle of Puebla). During the battle, General Ignacio Zaragoza led the vastly outnumbered Mexican army to victory over the French forces of Emperor Napoleon III. The triumph of Mexican forces at the Battle of Puebla became a symbol of Mexican unity and patriotism.
The battle was part of a French campaign to install a European monarch, the Austrian archduke Maximilian, as emperor of Mexico. At the time the French army was among the best-equipped and most highly regarded fighting forces in the world. French troops expected to march from the port city of Veracruz in eastern Mexico to Mexico City with little resistance from Mexican troops, at which time they would take the city and impose Maximilian as Mexico’s ruling monarch. Anticipating the attack, Mexican forces under General Zaragoza prepared to confront the advancing French troops at the city of Puebla east of Mexico City. On May 5, 1862, after two hours of fierce fighting, the smaller Mexican Army prevailed and forced the French to retreat.
The Mexican triumph proved to be only a temporary setback for the French, who returned to Mexico with a large army and conquered the country in 1863. However, the valor of those who fought the Battle of Puebla bolstered Mexico’s pride and helped to sustain its citizens during the period of French occupation, which ended in 1867. The Mexicans first celebrated Cinco de Mayo under French rule, and they changed the name of the city where their victory occurred to Puebla de Zaragoza.
Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in Mexico, and also in regions of the United States with sizeable communities of Mexican origin, including the Southwest, southern California, and other areas. Particularly well known is the celebration in Los Angeles, California, on the streets outside City Hall. Festivities often include sports events, parades, mariachi music and dancing, picnics featuring Mexican food, and beauty contests. Cinco de Mayo is sometimes confused with Mexican Independence Day (September 16), which commemorates the anniversary of the day in 1810 when revolutionary priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued a proclamation declaring Mexico independent from Spain.