Cinco de Mayo is a funny holiday. Although identified in the United States with the Mexican immigrant community, it's a holiday that has limited meaning in Mexico itself.
It commemorates the Battle of Puebla, in 1862, when the Mexican army led by General Ignacio Zaragoz Seguin defeated the French at the town of Puebla.
What's that you say? the French? How'd they get there?
In 1861, the emperor of France, Napoleon III decided to take advantage of an economic crisis in Mexico and establish an empire in Mexico that would be an ally of France. It was also an opportunity for Napoleon to meddle in the Civil War raging in the United States. He weighed in on the side of the Confederacy, and would be able to supply them quite easily from a base in Mexico.
He installed the feckless Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria as the Emperor Maximiliano, along with his wife Carlota, the daughter of Belgian King Leopold I.
French forces landed at Veracuz to take Mexico City, but on May 5, 1862, a rag-tag army of Mexicans defeated them. This was a big deal, since the French army was considered the best in the world at the time.
It was a classic case of the underdogs prevailing, and it didn't go unnoticed in California. Mexican communities in California celebrated with fireworks and rifle shots, and patriotic songs were sung about the victory.
In the context of the French Empire in Mexico, the Battle didn't mean much. The French regrouped, and took Mexico City a year later, and Emperor Maximilieno took the throne. Because of this, people in Mexico don't really care about Cinco de Mayo and the Battle of Puebla - except maybe in Puebla itself.
But here in American, Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated ever since 1863. And if you think about it, it makes sense - there's a good reason for Mexican-Americans and Americans both to celebrate the Battle of Puebla.
It's possible that the Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla changed the course of the American Civic War.
If the French had prevailed at Puebla, they would have strengthened the Confederacy - and even brought the French in on the side of the South. By denying the Confederate Army French support, the Mexican victory allowed Lincoln's army to turn the tide at Gettysburg just 14 months later. It's hard to know how the Civil War would have without that turning moment, but it's clear we would be a different America than we are today.
So think about that as you raise your glass of Corona or your margarita. Happy Cinco de Mayo!