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What Really is Cinco de Mayo? The Truth Behind the Celebration

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CU Boulder chapter.

As Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday, is quickly approaching, I wanted to tell the history of the celebration to educate those who aren’t aware of the reason why it is a holiday in the first place. In my experience, Cinco de Mayo — much like St. Patrick’s Day — has been commercialized. The true meaning has been lost behind the 2-for-1 margarita deals and the free chips and salsa. I’ve also discovered that many people believe that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s independence day, which is actually Sept. 16th, so I feel it is important to learn the truth behind this holiday. 

First, I want to start at the very beginning. In 1521, Emperor Cuauhtemoc, the last ruler of the Aztec Empire, surrendered to Spain. This began the Spanish rule of Mexico which would then last 300 years until Sept. 16, 1810, when Miguel Hidalgo, the village priest of Dolores, Guanajuato, urged the people to fight for independence. This would later be known as the “El Grito de Dolores” (The Shout). Hidalgo would later be imprisoned in 1811, but his message was heard. In 1821, exactly 300 years after the Mexica surrendered to Spain, Spain would surrender to Mexico; Mexico would become free. And, as I am sure you’ve noticed, there hasn’t been any mention of the month of May in all of this… So where does Cinco de Mayo come in? 

Interestingly, the event didn’t happen until decades later starting in 1861. In this year, Benito Juarez was elected president of Mexico. At the time, the country was in financial trouble due to a great amount of internal strife, and Juarez was forced to default on debt payment to three European countries. These countries included Britain, France, and Spain. Of course, these countries wanted their payment, so they each of them sent Naval forces to Veracruz (a coastal state of Mexico) to meet with Juarez. While Britain and Spain were open to negotiation, soon withdrawing their forces, France was ruled at the time by Napoleon III. Napoleon instead decided to take this as an opportunity to take some Mexican territory. Later that same year, a very well-armed French fleet stormed Veracruz, forcing President Juarez and his government to retreat from the area. 

This is what would lead to the Battle of Puebla, the origins of Cinco de Mayo. This battle began with General Charles Latrille de Lorence, a French army general. De Lorence was very certain that he and his 6,000 troops could expand the French empire in Mexico to include Puebla de Los Ángeles, which was a small town in east-central Mexico. President Juarez heard about Lorence’s plans and quickly rounded up all the men he could, which ended up being around 2,000 men, and sent them to Puebla. These men were led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, a Texas-born Mexican army general. Zaragoza and his small army, who were also poorly supplied and vastly outnumbered by the French, made their way to Puebla, fortifying the town and preparing for battle. Then on May 5, 1862, Lorence led his large army, armed with heavy artillery, into Puebla, beginning the battle. 

The Battle of Puebla lasted from daybreak until late evening, with Lorence pulling out his troops after losing more than 500 men in the battle. Despite their few numbers and even worse supplies, Zaragoza’s army lost fewer than 100 men in battle, driving the French out of Puebla. That is what is celebrated on Cinco de Mayo. Because despite everything working against them and despite the fact that this wasn’t even a major strategic win in the war against France, Zaragoza’s win was a great symbolic win of Mexican strength and bolstered resistance against the French occupation. And although it wasn’t until 1867 when Mexico, with support from the United States, was able to completely remove the French from the country, the Battle of Puebla was forever remembered as Cinco de Mayo — to never forget the strength and power that Mexicans hold even when outnumbered. 

That is the true history behind the beloved Cinco de Mayo, and although it is celebrated by far more Americans than Mexicans, it is still a great day to remember everything Mexicans have gone through to get where they are now. So on May 5, as you’re enjoying your chips and salsa at your favorite restaurant or drinking Coronas until you puke, take time to reflect on why you are able to enjoy delicious Mexican items on this victorious day. (P.S. always remember however that this is not an excuse to appropriate Mexican culture but appreciation is very much welcome).

Adamari Ruelas

CU Boulder '26

Adamari Ruelas is a contributing writer for the Her Campus chapter at CU Boulder. Her job within Her Campus is to write at least two articles a month, one contributing to a theme week. Outside of Her Campus, Adamari is a first-generation college student who is currently a sophomore at the University of Colorado Boulder, majoring in English Creative Writing. During her spring semester of freshman year, Adamari studied abroad in London, wanting to learn about different cultures while also being able to study in a Literature-rich city. Adamari also interned at the Aurora Public Schools Communications Department during her senior year of High School, where she learned how to write articles, interview subjects, and create social media posts for the department under the guidance of multiple professionals. In her free time, Adamari enjoys reading and writing, at least when she isn’t hanging out with her friends or playing Overwatch with her little siblings. She is a very proud Mexican-American who loves sharing her culture as long as Mexican history with anyone who lends an ear. Adamari is also a massive nerd, especially with Harry Potter (she’s a Ravenclaw btw) and Marvel. In the future, Adamari hopes to become a published author, sharing her works with the world and hoping they help people the way books have helped her.