Perhaps it would be best to state this at the beginning: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. That holiday occurs on September 16 each year, the anniversary of the Grito de Dolores, a speech and battle cry uttered by Roman Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla in 1810 that inspired the movement that ultimately freed Mexico from Spanish rule.
Cinco de Mayo marks the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, a victory over the French by Mexican forces that occurred more than a half century later, on May 5, 1862. French Emperor Napoleon III had sought to establish a French satellite state in Mexico, a plan that was (not surprisingly) resisted by Mexican President Benito Juárez. The French advance on the capital was blocked by the fortified city of Puebla, and French commanders ordered an ill-advised frontal assault against the entrenched Mexican defenders there. The Mexicans, under General Ignacio Zaragoza, routed the French, who lost about 1,000 men and were forced to retreat to the relative safety of the coast.
While the victory was impressive (future Mexican president Porfirio Díaz was especially credited for his role in the battle), the French returned with reinforcements and eventually captured Puebla after an extended siege. The city was retaken by the Mexicans in April 1867, but the original battle remained a potent symbol in Mexican consciousness. Cinco de Mayo—which means, of course, “Fifth of May”—symbolized the country’s determination to thwart foreign aggression, but its commemoration has taken different shapes over the years. The holiday’s popularity increased dramatically after its celebration became associated with tequila and other varieties of alcoholic beverages.