The Origins of Cinco de Mayo

Contributor: Elephango Editors. Lesson ID: 13851

This holiday is celebrated all over the United States. However, while millions of Americans celebrate it, most are not aware of its heroic roots in Puebla, Mexico.


World, World Cultures

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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The holiday of Cinco de Mayo centers around one thing almost every country has.

an abstract meter reading of a high level of national debt on a scale

When countries need money, they typically borrow it from other countries and can accumulate large amounts of debt.

  • What happens when a country can't repay the debt as fast as the lending country would like?

Mexico found that out the hard way.

Civil War

Mexico declared independence on 16 September 1810 when it took up arms against Spain, eventually breaking free of Spanish rule.

As a free country, Mexico had to decide how to rule itself. Two opposing groups thought their strategy for governing Mexico was the best, causing a civil war in the 1850s.

Ultimately, the winning side had to deal with the costly war, so Mexico borrowed money from rich countries like England, Spain, and France.

Historical flag of the Second Mexican Empire (1864-1867) burning in war, crisis, forest fire, collapse

By the early 1860s, the government could not repay its debt as fast as these three countries wanted because it had invested its income into Mexico itself rather than its debts.

Napoleon III

The ruler of France at the time was Napoleon III, the nephew of the famous French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

As you watch a portion of the video below on how Napoleon rose to power in France, notice his ambition.

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  • How did this successful and ambitious ruler respond to Mexico not paying its debt back?

England, Spain, and France all devised a plan to force Mexico to repay their debts. Troops landed in Veracruz in December 1861 and January 1862 and began to march toward Mexico City to get their money back.


The United States had exerted authority over the Western hemisphere for decades through the Monroe Doctrine.

Monroe Doctrine, vintage illustration

This doctrine stated that European countries were not supposed to meddle in Latin American countries because they were within the United States' sphere of influence.

European nations primarily listened to this doctrine. However, during this invasion of Mexico, the United States was in a civil war and could not enforce its influence abroad.

Because of this, Napoleon III had an idea. Once the three countries got to Mexico City, he installed his ruler, took control of the country, and greatly expanded the influence and power of the French Empire.

The British and Spanish saw what Napoleon III was doing and quickly fled the invasion. They signed treaties with Mexico and left France alone to push toward Mexico City.

Battle of Puebla

Pushpin pointing at Puebla city in Mexico

On 5 May 1862, the French army encountered Mexican troops in Puebla on its way to Mexico City. The people of Puebla could not stand a chance against the much larger and well-equipped French military.

Except that they did, and they won the battle!

Watch the video below to review what you learned and discover more about this historic event.

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Cinco de Mayo is significant because it commemorates the underdog winning against all the odds. Napoleon III's ambitions were checked by heroic citizens of Puebla and Mexico, who were able to stifle the French advance.

French Mexico

Despite this victory at Puebla, the French army was still able to gain control of Mexico for a few years in the 1860s, making Austrian Prince Maximilian the Emperor of Mexico.

By 1867, Napoleon III had withdrawn French troops, and Maximillian was instructed to flee, but the renewed Mexican government captured him and put him in prison.

Continue to the Got It? section to consider what makes Cinco de Mayo a holiday worth celebrating beyond the commercialization that has made it so popular in the United States.

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