History of Cinco de Mayo: Battle of Puebla is more than just Mexican food and drinks

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — Thursday is Cinco de Mayo, a day commonly celebrated in the US with Mexican food and drinks. But there’s much more meaning behind this cultural holiday, which some even mistaken for Mexican Independence Day.

According to a survey by NationalToday.com, only 10% of Americans actually know the true meaning behind it.

According to historians, Cinco de Mayo recognizes the unexpected victory of Mexico over the French army at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Dr. Raul Ramos, an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Houston says the odds were originally stacked against Mexico at the time, which was struggling financially. The country owed money to a few European nations, which invaded to collect a debt. Most withdrew after negotiations, but France stayed and tried to carve out a new empire.

“The Mexican army was understaffed and underequipped. But it still managed to beat the French army. It’s a little bit like defending Kyiv in Ukraine, you could say it’s the Mexican defense of their homeland,” said Ramos.

Not many may know that the State of Texas has ties to the historical event that inspired Cinco de Mayo. Ramos said Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza, who led the Mexican forces at the Battle of Puebla, was born in Goliad, which is about 150 miles southwest of Houston.

“This sequence model should remind us that American history and Mexican history are intertwined, not only within the Mexican American community. But I think broadly. The history of Mexico is the history of the United States,” he said.

Every year, reenactments of the battle take place in areas like Mexico City. However, experts say Cinco de Mayo is actually celebrated more in the United States than it is in Mexico.

“This is a Mexican and an American event. For many of the Mexicans in the United States, they saw the defense against France, as similar to the defense of the Union against the confederacy. It was an attempt to stop from going back to an old aristocratic time and move forward,” said Ramos. “I think it’s considered a moment to recognize Mexican heritage and ethnicity. It’s become a de facto St. Patrick’s Day if you will.”

WATCH: What to know about Cinco de Mayo

Houston community advocate, Blanca Beltran said the historical date serves as a day of culture, tradition, and pride for her. Her parents were roving migrant workers, who eventually settled in Houston after starting a family and wanting to provide some stability for their children. She recalls her favorite memory of Cinco de Mayo.

“I think back to when I was a child, I would perform in Cinco de Mayo presentations. My mom made me a beautiful yellow skirt that I was able to wear for the JR Harris Elementary School performance during the Cinco de Mayo celebration. That moment imprinted on me that I really love my culture,” she said.

In the city of Houston, Valeria Ramirez Siller with the Consulate General of Mexico says there are more than 2.5 million people with Mexican heritage.

“This history of resilience that is very present in the Battle of Puebla. We bring it with us to the US when we immigrate. Our community has it with them and it is a reminder of how resilient our people are,” she said.

Over the past few decades, Cinco de Mayo has become commoditized after brewing companies began capitalizing on the holiday in the 70s during the rising popularity of Mexican restaurants and bars. According to Womply, restaurants make a 44% increase in sales every year on May 5.

While Beltran says she supports the extra financial boost it provides to local Mexican businesses, she hopes the public will invest more effort in learning about the true meaning behind the holiday.

“I wish more people would want to know more about not just sombreros, margaritas, and whatever people do to celebrate Cinco de Mayo,” said Beltran. “I don’t take it personal when people don’t know. But I love being the one to share with them what it’s really about. I encourage people to ask. You’re not insulting me by doing so.”

Ramos and Ramirez Siller say Cinco de Mayo should be a time to recognize the contribution of Mexican people to the United States, during a time when discrimination and hateful rhetoric still exists in this community.

“A lot of folks still want to repeal birthright citizenship. My parents were not born here. They were born in Mexico. Even though I was born in San Antonio, in the shadow of the Alamo, some people still don’t consider me an American citizen. These are the rights that we need to remind folks that we are defending all the time. Just the way Mexico was being defended,” he said.

“We are essential workers. With the pandemic, we saw that they were in hospitals. They were in restaurants, hotels, construction, etc. The contribution of the Mexican people in the US is very big. It’s a very good time for the American AND Mexican people to think about what unites us, rather than what divides us,” said Ramirez Siller.

The Consulate General of Mexico in Houston will commemorate the Battle of Puebla this Saturday, May 7 from 10 am to 1 pm, at 3200 Rogerdale Road. The event will have artistic presentations, games, and information booths on legal protection, education, finances, and entrepreneurship. The public is invited to attend.

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