Many Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but have little idea about what the holiday actually means. Despite what people believe, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico's Independence Day. (Mexican independence is celebrated on September 16th.) Cinco de Mayo is a traditional holiday celebrated on May 5th to commemorate the Mexican army's victory over the French Empire, which occurred on May 5th, 1862. This was called the Battle of Puebla during the French-Mexican War.
Here's the story. Mexico had been suffering from financial ruin, which was exploited by the French President Napoleon III, who came up with the idea to build an empire there. At this time Mexico was building massive debt with Britain and Spain. But luckily, these countries were able to negotiate a solution.
In late 1861 the French invaded Mexico with well-armed forces, forcing the Mexican government to retreat into northern Mexico. The French, confident of more victories, focused their next attack on the city Puebla de Los Angeles. But Mexican President Benito Juarez sensed their arrival and gathered a group of 2,000 men to fight back. Many of these soldiers were made up of indigenous Mexicans or mixed ancestry. The Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862 lasted from daybreak to early evening with the French retreating after losing almost 500 soldiers. The Mexicans lost less than 100. Although it was very unlikely that Mexico would win, they came out on top.
In the United States, we usually celebrate Cinco de Mayo with margaritas, parades, mariachi music, colorful beads, and other Mexican-themed foods and cocktails.
In fact, Cinco de Mayo is actually celebrated more in the United States than it is in Mexico. The city of Puebla celebrates it—because that’s where the battle took place—but it isn't a nationwide holiday in Mexico. In the 1960s, Latino activists actually raised awareness for the holiday.
Nonetheless, the Battle of Puebla remains a source of great pride, and Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage around the globe.