The UCLA Chicano Network has a nice summary of the holiday Cinco de Mayo, which is celebrated in Mexican American communities (one such celebration in California a couple of years ago, pictured right, photo credit) and not yet much outside those communities:
Cinco de Mayo is a date of great importance for the Mexican and Chicano communities. It marks the victory of the Mexican Army over the French at the Battle of Puebla. Although the Mexican army was eventually defeated, the “Batalla de Puebla” came to represent a symbol of Mexican unity and patriotism. . . . Cinco de Mayo’s history has its roots in the French Occupation of Mexico. The French occupation took shape in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. With this war, Mexico entered a period of national crisis during the 1850’s. Years of not only fighting the Americans but also a Civil War, had left Mexico devastated and bankrupt. On July 17, 1861, President Benito Juarez issued a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for a brief period of two years, with the promise that after this period, payments would resume.
The English, Spanish and French refused to allow president Juarez to do this, and instead decided to invade Mexico and get payments by whatever means necessary. The Spanish and English eventually withdrew, but the French refused to leave. Their intention was to create an Empire in Mexico under Napoleon III. Some have argued that the true French occupation was a response to growing American power and to the Monroe Doctrine (America for the Americans). Napoleon III believed that if the United States was allowed to prosper indiscriminately, it would eventually become a power in and of itself.
In 1862, the French army began its advance. Under General Ignacio Zaragoza, 5,000 ill-equipped Mestizo and Zapotec Indians defeated the French army in what came to be known as the “Batalla de Puebla” on the fifth of May.
Clearly, it was a substantially indigenous army that defeated the mighty Europeans, an early and clear counter-colonialism event. This is an event that all who support self-determination for indigenous peoples and full human rights for all peoples should remember and honor.
The UCLA network account also makes some interesting observations about how this day is differentially celebrated in Mexico and the United States:
In the United States, the “Batalla de Puebla” came to be known as simply “5 de Mayo” and unfortunately, many people wrongly equate it with Mexican Independence which was on September 16, 1810, nearly a fifty year difference. Over, the years Cinco de Mayo has become very commercialized and many people see this holiday as a time for fun and dance. Oddly enough, Cinco de Mayo has become more of Chicano holiday than a Mexican one. Cinco de Mayo is celebrated on a much larger scale here in the United States than it is in Mexico. People of Mexican descent in the United States celebrate this significant day by having parades, mariachi music, folklorico dancing and other types of festive activities.
And here is a more detailed discussion of how it came to celebrated by Chicanos (Mexican Americans) over the years in the US. In my view, this is a good holiday for all those Americans who are opposed to colonialism and imperial invasions to celebrate.