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How Mexico's Victory Over The French On Cinco de Mayo Aided The Union In The Civil War

Two boys dressed in white Mariachi suits surrounded by dancers in red dresses at a Cinco de Mayo Celebration at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.
A Cinco de Mayo celebration at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument in 2017. It's one of the few cultural institutions with a proposed increase in its budget.
(Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images)
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Cinco de Mayo. It's not Mexican Independence Day, and it's not a widespread holiday in Mexico either. It marks the day the Mexican army defeated the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862.

The backstory

After the Mexican–American War, Mexico was in debt to the many countries who had contributed to their unsuccessful effort, France included.

Marissa López, a UCLA professor of Chicano and Central American studies, said France was looking for any reason to invade Mexico. The French hoped, she said, to establish a military base in the Western Hemisphere during the U.S. Civil War to back the South.

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"Supporting the South would mean potentially breaking up this increasingly powerful country," López said.

Miraculously, the unheralded Mexican Army defeated the French army. But if things had gone differently?

"The French could very well have set up a base of operations in Mexico and been able to aid the South, and the U.S. Civil War could have ended very differently," Lopez said.

So why isn't the holiday celebrated in Mexico?

López said the Victory in Puebla was a hollow one. The French came back a few years later and briefly established an empire. So no, Mexico does not celebrate Cinco De Mayo.

So why do Americans celebrate? Lopez says it's advantageous to drink and forget the actual history. "Because forgetting that history means forgetting our deep indebtedness to Mexico."

But if you want to enjoy a drink or two, keep in mind you're toasting to Mexico's brief victory over the French empire in 1862.

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