The May 5, 1862, Battle of Puebla proved a small-scale affair when placed against the broad scope of military history. News of the Mexican victory quickly reached the ears of Mexican patriots, who were then working the creeks and streams of California’s gold rush in Tuolumne County.
In addition to these expats boisterously celebrated reports of the French defeat at the hands of Mexico’s smaller, rag-tag army, the Mexican government under then-president Benito Juarez declared the anniversary of the battle to be a national holiday. In the century and a half since the battle, two nations, Mexico, and the United States celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
As mentioned, official announcement of the holiday was made early in Mexico, within a week of the victory that served to bolster Mexican resolve over the next five years of war with France. An important holiday, it should not be confused with the most important date, September 16, which honors Mexico’s Independence Day. Today, the holiday has special significance in the Mexican city of Puebla, the site of the battle, with celebrations, school closures, and the like.
Just as news of the victory galvanized Mexican spirits during the war, it served as a point of pride for Mexicans living in California. While partaking in the opportunities afforded by the Gold Rush, they did so amidst the backdrop of racial animosity that non-Anglos were confronted with an array of discriminative policies such as a Foreign Miner’s Tax.
Over the decades following that first celebration in Tuolumne County, the practice of honoring the day continued on Cinco de Mayo throughout California and select areas of the west wherever large concentrations of Mexican nationals lived in the western United States.
These conditions would seem to belie the current level of celebration in the United States. What happened? Following an explosion of interest in Hispanic heritage in the 1960s and 1970s from a new generation of young activists and scholars, celebration of the holiday moved beyond the western United States to become a major holiday throughout the country. Indeed, Chicago, New York, and Houston joined the litany of California communities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento to celebrate the holiday.
Chief among the proponents of the expansion of Cinco de Mayo across the country was a push by beer company executives to utilize the day as a way of marketing to a mass audience regardless of their ethnic identity. While the popularity of the holiday is bigger than ever, it is important to remember the day not just as a chance to drink Mexican beers, but rather as an opportunity to better understand the history, food, and culture behind the celebration.
Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in both Mexico and the United States.