Cinco de Mayo literally means May 5 in Spanish. It is a holiday that was born in Mexico but that has taken on a deeper significance here in the United States. Often confused as Mexico’s Independence Day (which is actually celebrated on September 16), Cinco de Mayo is the anniversary of a battle that took place between the Mexicans and the French in 1862.
It was the Battle of Puebla, where a small, poorly armed force of around 4,500 soldiers faced an invasion of more than 8,000 well trained and armed French soldiers led by Napoleon III. Lasting just over 4 hours, the small Mexican army under Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza emerged victorious.
What is most intriguing about the Battle of Puebla is not merely the victory itself. Certainly, it was astonishing given the fact that the French army outnumbered the Mexicans and were better equipped. But it was also the first defeat in nearly 50 years for the French. It also marked the last time that a European power has invaded the Americas. Some historians, such as Justo Sierra who noted in his book, Political Evolution of the Mexican People, that had Mexico not defeated the French on May 5, 1862, France would have gone to the aid of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War and the United States’ destiny would have been much different.
While we don’t know if Sierra’s theory is true, we do know that this small battle and its ensuing observances have had enormous social and cultural implications for Southern California. This Cinco de Mayo, we hope you enjoy the many parades, festivities, dances and delicious food which are part of this holiday, and which celebrate the uniqueness of our southland culture.