Did You Know? Cinco de Mayo Celebrates the Battle of Puebla

The lesser known backstory behind the popular holiday

National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Though the holiday originated in Mexico, the celebrations known as Cinco de Mayo are now a favorite pastime for many Americans, too.

Common belief is that the fifth of May marks Mexico's independence. But that's celebrated on September 16. Cinco de Mayo is a holiday that commemorates the victory of the Mexican army over a far larger French force in the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862.

The conflict began in 1861, when Benito Juarez, then the president of Mexico, stopped paying interest on the money he owed several countries, including France. In response, the French army invaded Mexico and tried to take over the country. The French's first attempt was successful: The city of Campeche was overtaken on February 27, 1862. But in an incredible comeback, the Mexican army, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, with just 4,000 men, trounced the French army of 8,000. The French hadn't lost a battle in 50 years.

Today, celebrations in Mexico are most widespread in the state of Puebla itself. Those looking for an unusual way to celebrate here in the states can join in from any location beginning tonight at 8 p.m., when the ground-breaking Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum in Second Life hosts a night of art and music. The online celebration features music by DJ Bambarito, and a live poetry reading by Nancy Lorenza Green, an Afro-Chicana artist from El Paso and Cd. Juarez. So dance your way over to you your computer for a mid-week fiesta. But make sure to keep that margarita away from the keyboard.

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