Cinco de Mayo literally translates to fifth of May and commemorates the Mexican army's 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War of 1861-1867. Although a relatively minor holiday in Mexico, in the United States Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in areas with large Mexican-American populations. Cinco de Mayo traditions include parades, mariachi music performances and street festivals in cities and towns across Mexico and the United States. As someone who lived for many, many years in Southern California, I've definitely seem lots of Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
Here's a brief history of Mexico's Cinco de Mayo holiday:
Mexico, formerly known as New Spain, declared their independence from Spain on September 16, 1810. After fighting an 11 year war, they finally achieved their independence in 1821.
In 1861 [at the time of the U.S. Civil War], Benito Juarez became president of a country in financial ruin. He was forced to default on Mexico's debts to several European governments. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand payment of the loans. Britain and Spain negotiated a settlement with Mexico and withdrew. France, ruled by Napoleon III, decided to use the opportunity to create a dependent French holding in Mexican territory. Late in 1861, a large well-armed French fleet landed at Veracruz and drove President Juarez and his government into retreat.
Certain of a swift French victory, 6000 French troops set out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles [not to be confused with Los Angeles, California, as California had been a state in the U.S. for eleven years at that time]. From his new headquarters in northern Mexico, Juarez rounded up a rag-tag force of loyal men and sent them to Puebla. Led by Texas-born General Zaragoza, the 2000 Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the French assault. On the fifth of May, 1862, the French commander moved his well-provisioned army, supported by heavy artillery, into position at the city of Puebla and began their assault from the north. The battle lasted from daybreak to early evening, and when the French finally retreated they had lost nearly 500 soldiers to the fewer than 100 Mexicans killed.