Why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo? The history behind the holiday Arizonans love to toast

You know Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day, right?

That’s a common misperception about Cinco de Mayo. The day has become known as an excuse to overindulge in margaritas and beer in the U.S., although it’s a fairly minor holiday in Mexico.

Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexico’s 1862 victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War. In Mexico it’s celebrated mainly in the state of Puebla, where the battle occurred, and surrounding areas.

It’s become a big deal in the U.S., however, particularly in places with large Mexican American populations.

For the record, Mexico's Independence Day is Sept. 16 and it was declared 50 years before the Battle of Puebla.

Do not miss out: Best things to do in metro Phoenix this weekend involve spandex, capes and cowboy hats

What was the Battle of Puebla?

Puebla is a city in east-central Mexico with over 1 million inhabitants. In 1862, during the Franco-Mexican War, it was a small town that was attacked by some 6,000 French troops.

Though outnumbered, about 2,000 Mexican troops defended Puebla against the onslaught, killing about 500 French soldiers during the day-long battle.

The Battle of Puebla wasn’t a huge strategic win but it bolstered the resistance movement. It was also a point of pride for Mexican Americans, particularly in California where the first Cinco de Mayo celebrations were held.

Alexander Avina, an associate professor of Latin American history at Arizona State University, said the first celebrations took place not long after the battle.

“By the early 1900s, it was celebrated thousands of times, mostly in northern and southern California, but also in parts of the West that used to be part of Mexico and had become part of the U.S. after the Mexican-American War of 1846,” Avina said.

“It seems that a lot had to do with Mexican Americans, or Mexicans recently transformed into Americans, trying to craft out some sort of Latino or Mexican identity after the U.S. takeover of these lands.”

Celebrate: Biggest Cinco de Mayo 2023 events in Phoenix this weekend include lucha libre, concerts and more

Why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the U.S.?

UCLA professor David Hayes-Bautista, in his 2012 book "El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition," makes the argument that celebrating Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. has a connection to the Civil War.

According to Hayes-Bautista, France was sympathetic to the Confederate cause in the Civil War and would have aided the South during that conflict. The French defeat at Puebla slowed France's efforts in Mexico, which also limited its attempt to aid the Confederates. Patriotic Mexican Americans in California began celebrating the victory at the Battle of Puebla during the Civil War.

Avina explained that Mexican Patriotic Committees were formed to raise money to help Mexico fight off the French invasion. The clubs also discussed the U.S. Civil War and most were pro Union. Men from those clubs in California joined the Union army to fight in the West, including at Picacho Pass, the only Civil War battle in Arizona.

“You had Latino, or Mexican-American, soldiers who were pro Union come from California to try to hold on to the territory to make sure it’s a pro Union territory,” Avina said.

“The Mexican patriotic communities who were supporting the Mexican liberals against the French tended to be pro Union and pro Abraham Lincoln. Some of these men even ended up joining the Union army in the Nevada Territory, New Mexico Territory and Arizona Territory to make sure these territories stayed on the Union side.”

Mexican American civil rights

Cinco de Mayo took on additional significance almost 100 years later as the Mexican American community began to grow in the 1960s and beyond.

“In that Bautista book, there is an interest that correlates with the Mexican American civil rights movement and a younger generation of Chicano activists that were trying to craft a new type of identity in contrast to their parents,” Avina said. "Cinco de Mayo becomes one of these reference points around which they could create a more militant or activist identity.”

As the Mexican American population increased in the second half of the 20th century, the holiday took a more commercial turn as businesses began to recognize the buying power of that community. That’s when the holiday began to be known more as a chance to party.

Reasons to celebrate Cinco de Mayo

Avina had a couple of suggestions for people looking for reasons to celebrate Cinco de Mayo that don't involve overconsumption of alcohol.

The first is to commemorate the victory of an outmanned, outgunned Mexican army made up of peasants and indigenous people over one of the most powerful armies in the world at that time.

“But the second reason is linked to the story that happens on the northern side of the border,” Avina said. “Celebrating Cinco de Mayo is linked to redefining what it means to be Mexican American. I think that’s fine. I think that’s actually healthy.”

So when is Mexican Independence Day?

Mexico celebrates its independence from Spain on Sept. 16. That’s the anniversary of the date in 1810 when the priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla made the call to arms that was a catalyst in the war against the Spanish colonial government.

Reach the reporter at weldon.johnson@arizonarepublic.com. Or follow him on Twitter at @weldonjohnson.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Cinco de Mayo facts: What is Cinco de Mayo and why do we celebrate?