Cinco de Mayo is Spanish for the fifth of May. The fifth of May is a significant day for Mexicans, being the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, a battle between Mexican and French forces which has become symbolic of the Mexican spirit and determination to thwart foreign aggression.
The battle of Puebla took place in 1862. Leading up to this event, in 1861, Mexico declared a temporary moratorium, or delay, on their foreign debt. In response to this, the English, Spanish and French all invaded Mexico. After negotiations, the English and Spanish left by 1862, but the French remained.
The French were trying to establish a monarchy and also had designs to curb United States' power in North America.
On their way to the Mexican capital, the French forces needed to pass through the town of Puebla. Although they were heavily outnumbered, it was here that the Mexicans, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, managed to defeat the French forces.
Although the battle of Puebla was a success for Mexican freedom, the French returned a year later and were successful in taking over Mexico City. Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria's Hapsburg House was selected by Napoleon III as Emperor of Mexico and for three years ruled from the Chapultepec Palace in Mexico City, which was built by the Spanish.
The French had begun to overextend themselves in Mexico as they spread their control of the region. Soon the American Civil War was over and the United States informed the French of their Monroe doctrine which stated they would treat any colonial disputes within the Americas as hostile towards the United States and would step in. This caused the Napoleon III to withdraw troops from Mexico. Eventually Maximilian was captured and executed in June, 1867.
It took five years to drive the French out of Mexico. However the Battle of Puebla, being the beginning of the resistance against the French, is seen as symbolising the determination of the Mexican people.
Cinco de Mayo is celebrated throughout Mexico and the US Southwest, but especially in Puebla, where soldiers, students, mariachi bands and dancers parade on the main street. The celebrations culminate in a party at the “zocalo,” or main plaza. In some cities, re-enactments of the battle of Puebla take place.
Some US states celebrate the day also, especially in the Southwestern states and areas with a large Hispanic population. In particular Goliad, Texas holds a major celebration of Cinco de Mayo, as it is the birthplace of General Ingnacio Zaragoza.