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This module gives a brief background on the Mexican holiday, Cinco de mayo (May 5). It is designed for the beginning high school or college Spanish classroom. It includes evaluation questions for before and after the reading.

Before you read

  1. What country celebrates Cinco de mayo ?
  2. When is this holiday celebrated?
  3. What event or events do you think this holiday commemorates?
  4. How popular do you think this holiday is?
  5. Have you ever celebrated Cinco de mayo ?
  6. Can you think of any other non-US national holiday that is celebrated in the US?
  7. Name one US national holiday.
  8. How is this US holiday celebrated?
  9. Why is this US holiday important?
  10. Describe your favorite holiday.


Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de mayo (May 5th) is not Mexican Independence Day (which is Sept. 16, or diez y seis de septiembre ). Rather, Cinco de mayo commemorates a rather small battle, the Battle of Puebla, in a series of battles during French occupation of Mexico, known as the Franco-Mexican War or the French Intervention (1861-1867). The Cinco de mayo holiday is more popular among US Americans than it is among Mexicans, where the holiday is mainly celebrated in the Mexican state of Puebla.

Puebla, mexico

Puebla, Puebla in Mexico is the site of the Battle of Puebla.


Mexico had incurred a substantial amount of debt after a tumultuous and violent timeline of wars and violence, including its independence from Spain (1821), the Mexican American War (1846-1848), and the Mexican Civil War (1858). The country owed money to Spain, England, and France. Mexico’s inability to repay the loan caused France to act. Napoleon III, President of the French Second Republic, seized the chance to expand the French empire. In 1861, French troops invaded Mexico’s gulf coast at Veracruz. Meanwhile, the United States was engaged in its own Civil War (1861-1865).

Battle of puebla

Battle of Puebla
The Battle of Puebla took place on May 5, 1862 ( Cinco de mayo ).

French intervention

The French army proceeded toward the capital, Mexico City, forcing President Benito Juárez’s government into exile. On May 5, 1862, the French encountered resistance at Puebla, Puebla under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza at the Loreto and Guadalupe forts during what would be known as the Battle of Puebla. Despite being greatly outnumbered (4,000 Mexican soldiers against the 8,000 well-equipped French army), the Mexicans defeated the French. This was only the first battle in the struggle to oust French occupation.

In September of that same year, 30,000 more French troops arrived in Mexico. In 1863, the French successfully captured Puebla and Mexico City. In 1864, Napoleon III sent his relative, Archduke Maximilian of Austria (known as "Maximiliano") along his wife, Charlotte of Belgium (known as "Carlota"), to reign as Emperor and Empress of Mexico. They chose to make Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City their home.

Emperors of mexico

Archduke maximilian of austria


Charlotte of belgium

Napoleon III installed Maximilian and Charlotte to rule in Mexico during the French Intervention.

Upon the conclusion of the US Civil War, the United States provided assistance to Mexico, and Mexico was able to expel the French in 1867.

The most significant aspects of the Battle of Puebla are that this first victory served as an inspiration to the Mexican people and set the tone for following battles during the Franco-Mexican War. Secondly, since this battle, no country in the Americas has been invaded by European forces.

Cinco de mayo and the us

Cinco de mayo in the United States, particularly in California and the Southwest, has become a time to celebrate cultural heritage through music, song, dance, and food. Large-scale celebrations are popular in cities with significant Mexican-American populations, such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, San Antonio, El Paso, etc. Rather than a celebration of the actual Battle of Puebla, the holiday in the US signifies heritage and cultural roots.

Commercial interests have also contributed to its popularity in the US. Restaurants, in particular, have capitalized on this holiday in order to promote the sale of Mexican food and products.

After reading

  1. What does Cinco de mayo commemorate?
  2. What do most people think it commemorates?
  3. Where is Cinco de mayo celebrated the most?
  4. Why did the French invade Mexico?
  5. Did the Battle of Puebla end the French Intervention?
  6. Why didn’t the United States offer aid to Mexico?
  7. Who ruled Mexico during the French Intervention?
  8. In what year did the French Intervention end?
  9. Why was Cinco de mayo important for Mexico?
  10. Why is it important in the history of the Americas (North and South America)?

Further evaluation

  1. Compare and contrast the Battle of Puebla to Argentina's Malvina's War (also known as the Falklands War and the South Atlantic War).
  2. Compare and contrast Mexico's celebration of the Battle of Puebla with Peru's celebration of the Naval Battle of Angamos (October 8).
  3. Compare Mexico's Cinco de mayo holiday to the US's 4th of July. How are these two holidays similar (events they commemorate, where they are celebrated, why they are celebrated, how they are celebrated in the US)? How are they different? Have you attended a celebration of either of these events? Describe yours experience.
  4. Look up other Latin American holidays, such as Indigenous Resistance Day (Oct. 12). What are some ways in which Latin American holidays differ from US holidays?
  5. Think about how commercialism affects the image that we have of Cinco de mayo . Can you think of some examples of advertising that use the Cinco de mayo holiday as a marketing gimmick? What products or places are advertised? How do they employ Mexican imagery and culture to sell or advertise the product? How could this influence the perception that people have of the holiday?

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Hispanic culture for the spanish classroom. OpenStax CNX. Aug 23, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11343/1.4
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