The holiday celebrating a victorious military battle (not Independence) that’s become a celebration of Mexican culture (and especially Jalisco culture).
In 1861 after multiple wars, a nearly bankrupt Mexico was in debt to Britain, France, and Spain. President Benito Juárez instituted a temporary moratorium on foreign debt payments which France used as a justification for invasion. France wanted to expand their empire by seizing Mexico, and Mexico’s unpaid debt was an excuse to do so. The French fleet launched an invasion at Veracruz and marched westward toward Mexico City. On the way to the capital the Mexican army engaged the French near the town of Puebla.
Despite being outnumbered 2 to 1, on May 5, 1862 the Mexican army defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla. This is what Cinco de Mayo celebrates – a Mexican victory over the French. Unfortunately the Mexicans eventually lost the war and in 1864 the French installed the Austrian born Emperor Maximilian I as ruler of Mexico. By 1867 though the Mexicans rose up and took back the country, executing Maximilian on June 19, 1867.
Cinco de Mayo … nos Estados Unidos
Today Cinco de Mayo is more popular in the United States than Mexico. Outside of the state of Puebla most of Mexico pays little attention to the holiday (which in Mexico is not called Cinco de Mayo of course but is “El Día de la Batalla de Puebla” or “The Day of the Battle of Puebla”). One reason for its popularity in the US is that the Mexican-American community uses the holiday as a cultural holiday honoring their Mexican heritage, much like what Irish-Americans do with Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s become more of a celebration of Mexican culture than of a military victory over the French.
Jalisco es Mexico
On the Pacific coast of Mexico, sits the state of Jalisco. While Jalisco had little to do with the Battle of Puebla it has a lot to do with modern Cinco de Mayo and what we think of when we think of Mexico. The first mass produced tequila, mariachi music, the iconic folk dresses with large ribboned skirts, jaripeo bull riding, wide-brimmed sombreros, and the national dance “Jarabe Tapatío” (“Mexican Hat Dance”) all come from the state of Jalisco. As a result the state’s motto is “Jalisco es Mexico” (“Jalisco is Mexico”).
Similar to how many of the things people associate with Germany really just come from the Bavarian region, many of the cultural elements that people associate with Mexico are just from the state of Jalisco. As such every Cinco de Mayo Jalisco’s contributions to the Mexican cultural identity loom large as they appear in homes and restaurants around the United States as people celebrate Mexico.
Added info: Mexican Independence day is called “Grito de Dolores” (“The Cry of Dolores”) which is when Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gave a speech to his parishioners and rang the church bell as a call to arms. This was the 1810 start of the Mexican War of Independence and is celebrated every September 16th.