Cinco de Mayo is right around the corner, and surprisingly, most Americans—and many Mexican Americans—do not realize the importance of this event, which many of us celebrate each year on the 5th of May. Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is NOT the Mexican Independence Day. Rather it commemorates the Battle of Puebla in 1862, when a small Mexican army (about 2,000 soldiers) defeated the French invading forces, which were considered to be the best army in the world at the time.
Here are five little-known facts about the event and its impact on American history.
1. This year is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla. In honor of the occasion, Puebla is celebrating big time with a number of concerts and other special events to encourage tourism, including their first international festival celebrating the gastronomy of Puebla. This year’s main dish? Mole! You can read more on their website, 5deMayoPuebla.mx.
2. The small army in Puebla was under the direction of General Ignacio Zaragoza. He was born in what is now known as Goliad, Texas, but back then was the Mexican village of Bahía del Espíritu Santo. A 3,000-pound bronze statue that stands 10-feet tall of the famous Mexican general is located near the reconstructed home where he was born in 1829. The statue was commissioned by Alfredo Toxqui Fernandez de Lara, governor of the State of Puebla as a gift to the people of Goliad and the State of Texas; it dedicated in 1980.
3. The Battle of Puebla was actually just a small part of the French Invasion. Napoleon III (not Napoleon Bonaparte!) was the emperor of France and was looking for an opportunity to establish a French empire in the Americas. His goal was to capture Mexico City, and take control of the country.
4. Americans have more reason to celebrate Cinco de Mayo than Mexicans. Because, had the small Mexican army not stopped—and thereby delayed—the French forces, Napoleon might have succeeded in his plan to supply the Confederate army with supplies and weapons to help them win the Civil War. This would have granted him access to the United States.
5. President Abraham Lincoln and Mexican President Benito Juarez had a close personal friendship that played a key role in both of their victories. “In 1862 Mexico faced an invader from France, while the United States defended the Union and the equality of all men,” explains the Hon. Luis Maldonado-Venegas, Government of Puebla Secretary of Education. “Both struggles not just coincided in time, but also coincided in an inalienable principle: freedom of our citizens.” This relationship is only now being explored more carefully by historians, and is so significant that the the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS) and the State of Puebla, Mexico have entered into a scholar and historic research partnership by announcing their first Lincoln-Juarez Historical Literary Essay Scholarship Competition. The essay contest is open to all US college students who are enrolled at the time of entry.