Understanding Cinco de Mayo History
Cinco de Mayo (literally, the Fifth of May in Spanish) is not Mexico’s Independence Day, as is commonly assumed by many. The day actually marks the victory over a poorly equipped Mexican force of around 4,000 against the French army at Puebla on May 5th, 1862. Cinco de Mayo history is not always taught in US schools, so if you have some gaps in your knowledge about this Mexican holiday, read on!
The Battle of Puebla stemmed from the arrival of the French in January of that year, along with English and Spanish delegations, ostensibly to settle debts owed by the Mexican government to these countries. While the Spanish and English made arrangements with Mexico and returned to Europe, the French had conquest in mind, not debt settlement. Napoleon III’s forces brought along the Hapsburg prince Maximilian to rule the nation on the assumption that they would carry the day; it must be remembered that at the time, France had the most modern, well equipped army in the world, so few would have expected a Mexican victory on the battlefield.
Commanded by General Ignacio Zaragosa Seguin, the Mexican army took advantage of a blunder by the French army, who pursued the Mexican cavalry (among the world’s best cavalry troops) who were taking up a position on their flank. The French infantry were decimated by the Mexican cavalry, led by Colonel Porfirio Diaz, with the remaining French troops attempting to fight on through a rainstorm in muddy terrain amidst stampeding cattle.
The battle was a rout, despite the odds being entirely in favor of the French at the battle’s outset. Though it would be another five years before Mexico would finally expel the French, the Battle of Puebla is regarded as one of the most important battles of the Franco-Mexican War.
Cinco de Mayo history begins in earnest in 1863, when the date began being marked by celebrations in Puebla – and strangely enough, in California as well. The US has a long history of celebrating this holiday, even though it is a largely regional celebration in Mexico. Even though many Americans are largely unaware of Cinco de Mayo’s history, this hasn’t gotten in the way of our enjoyment of this day, which is usually marked with music, dancing, parades and of course Mexican food.
As Mexican cuisine becomes more and more popular in the US, the number of options available to cooks looking for something to serve to their guests at Cinco de Mayo parties expands every year. If you would like to serve something a little more adventurous than the standard chips and salsa this Cinco de Mayo, Mexican ingredients are more widely available and there are now many places to find authentic Mexican recipes easily.
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