OK, it’s not Mexican Independence Day (Mexico declared its independence on September 16, 1821).
By 1861, though, the financially struggling country had defaulted on debt payments to several European nations. France’s Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, decided to use the outstanding debt as a pretense to invade and extend his overseas empire.
Napoleon’s troops stormed Veracruz and drove Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president, into exile. Emboldened by their early victory, French forces under General Charles de Lorencez attacked Puebla de Los Angeles, about 80 miles outside Mexico City, on May 5, 1862.
Juarez sent a ragtag army of Mexicans and Zapotec Indians to defend the town under the banner of General Ignacio Zaragoza. The battle lasted from dawn to sunset and, though they were outmanned nearly 2-to-1, Zaragoza’s troops repelled Lorencez’s troops.
The battle wasn’t a decisive victory — in fact, the French recaptured Puebla a year later — but many Mexicans saw it as a symbol of throwing off the shackles of colonialism and oppression. Four days later, on May 9, 1862, Juárez declared Cinco de Mayo a national holiday.
French troops fully withdrew from Mexico in 1867, and Maximilian I, the Austrian archduke Napoleon installed as the country’s emperor, was eventually captured and executed.
In honor of the Mexican victory, Puebla de Los Angeles was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza, and Cinco de Mayo was made a national holiday.
Why is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in the US?
As the French and Mexicans were battling, the US was embroiled in the American Civil War. Napoleon III had aligned with the Confederacy and planned to supply Southern states with weapons in return for cotton, which was being blockaded by the Union.
The loss at Puebla and the resources Napoleon expended in Mexico helped derail his strategy to continue northward and bolster the Confederacy.
US citizens of Mexican descent overwhelmingly supported the Union, according to David E. Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the UCLA School of Medicine. They voted for Abraham Lincoln, and many served in the Union army, navy and cavalry.
News of the decisive victory in Puebla “electrified Latinos in California, Nevada and Oregon into redoubling their efforts to defend freedom, equality and democracy in both the United States and Mexico,” Hayes-Bautista told CNET.
For his book El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, he traced period newspapers showing that Cinco de Mayo celebrations were held in Los Angeles and other parts of the West almost as soon as the battle in Puebla was over.
“Every Cinco de Mayo, Latinos marched through the streets of cities, towns and mining camps to let the world know where they stood on the issues of the American Civil War and the French Intervention in Mexico,” Hayes-Bautista said.
By 1910, the Mexican-American veterans of the American Civil War were dying off, and a new wave of immigration was coming to California amid the Mexican Revolution.
“These new arrivals noticed the Cinco de Mayo celebrations here in California, and began to join them,” Hayes-Bautista said. But they repurposed the celebrations with songs, music and images of the Mexican Revolution, he said.
In the 1960s, leaders in the Chicano movement repurposed Cinco de Mayo again, as a symbol of cultural pride and resilience as they advocated for farm workers’ rights, educational and economic opportunities and other social and political causes.
“The David versus Goliath story fittingly mirrored the struggle for civil rights,” Kirby Farah, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California, wrote for The Conversation.
For generations, Cinco de Mayo wasn’t widely known in the US outside of Mexican American and Central American immigrant communities.
Then, in the 1980s, as Latinos became a larger economic force in the country, beer companies saw an opportunity. In 1989, the Gambrinus Group, the Texas importers of Corona and Negra Modelo, launched an ad campaign encouraging Mexican Americans to drink Mexican beer on the holiday.
The marketing was soon broadened to reach Americans of all backgrounds, and, in 1993, Gambrinus marketing director Ron Christesson told Modern Brewery Age magazine that Cinco de Mayo was “becoming one of the beer industry’s biggest promotions.”
It was in this era, Hayes-Bautista said, that Cinco de Mayo “became highly commercialized into ‘Drinko de Mayo.'” (Info here is from Dan Avery)
(I have not yet found a connection to Hawai‘i, other than it’s another good day for cerveza, tequila and/or margaritas.)