It’s Cinco de Mayo. ¡Olé! Break out your ridiculous, oversized straw sombrero, the bright poncho you bought in the airport at Cancun, and head to your nearest Chili’s. It’s time to celebrate that very special Mexican day! But…what is it again that we’re celebrating?
Cinco de Mayo is a commercial holiday in the U.S.—one that is used to sell beer and tortilla chips, advertise dinner specials at restaurants and offers a good reason for Mexican-themed parties at colleges everywhere. In Mexico, however, Cinco de Mayo isn’t even a federal holiday. The date commemorates May 5, 1862, when the Mexican army defeated the much larger French army that had invaded Mexico at Veracruz and was making its way to Mexico City. But the Mexican victory at the Batalla de Puebla was short lived. French troops continued to press on and a year later the French took Mexico City, and occupied the country for the next three years under the rule of Emperor Maximilian I, who was handpicked for the job by Napoleon III.
But wars, invasions and politics are never that simple. One must consider that Mexico had only just gained its independence from Spain 50 years earlier. And Mexico had just ceded half its territory to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War and the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. At the time of the French invasion, the U.S. was starting its own civil war.
Before the French landed at Veracruz, Mexico was already unstable. President Benito Juarez imposed a series of liberal reforms, known as La Reforma, which included restricting the privileges of the Church, taxing church land, declared all citizens equal, and advanced a capitalist economy based on that of the United States. But Juarez and his government had enemies in the conservatives who wanted Mexico to be ruled under a quasi-monarchical government like the one that had existed during the First Mexican Empire.
Read Related: What Benito Juarez & Abraham Lincoln Have in Common