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Cinco de Mayo, or the fifth of May, is a holiday that celebrates the date of the Mexican army’s May 5, 1862, victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War.  The day is also known as Battle of Puebla Day.  While it is a relatively minor holiday in Mexico, in the United States, Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a commemoration of Mexican culture and heritage.

There is a popular misconception that Cinco de Mayo is known as Mexican Independence Day.  However, in truth, it commemorates a single battle.  In 1861, Benito Juárez—a lawyer and member of the Indigenous Zapotec tribe—was elected president of Mexico.  At the time, the country was having financial problems and extreme debt.  Mexico was defaulting on loans and was in financial peril.

In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to Mexico, demanding repayment of the loans.  Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew their forces.

France, however, ruled, by Napoleon III, decided to use the opportunity to carve an empire out of Mexican territory.

Late in 1861, a well-armed French fleet stormed Mexico, landing a large force of troops and driving President Juárez and his government into retreat.  The French troops stormed the city of Puebla on May 5, 1861, but the Mexican Army was able to hold them off and win the battle.  This was considered a symbolic victory for the Mexican Government and helped bolster the resistance movement.  In 1867, with the help of the United States, France finally withdrew from the war.  Mexico has sustained its sovereignty.

Today, Cinco de Mayo, is a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage within the Mexican-American community.  In the United States, the holiday’s awareness was raised by activists in the 1960s.

Cinco de Mayo is customarily celebrated with parades, parties, mariachi music, Mexican folk dancing, and traditional Mexican culinary dishes such as tacos and mole poblano.  Some of the largest Cinco De Mayo festivals are held in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.

Some Mexican-American families celebrate the holiday by cooking with family, dancing the national “Jarabe Tapatio” or the Mexican Hat Dance, and praying over ancestors.

In Puebla, Mexico, Cinco De Mayo is celebrated by the locals gathering and having a large parade dressing as Mexican and French soldiers to re-enact the war.

Although there has been a commercialization of the holiday over recent years, the true intent of the holiday was to focus on a celebration of the great Mexican culture and heritage.

Victor J. Santoro is a partner in the firm’s Philadelphia office and a member of the firm’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee.