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The Evolution of Cinco de Mayo: From Regional Holiday to Brewery-Backed Spectacle

New Mexico celebrates Cinco de Mayo in 1914 with a parade / Getty

One of the more misunderstood holidays in the United States, Cinco de Mayo has a richer history than any “Cinco de Drinko” bar crawl might suggest.

The story begins in 1861, when Benito Juárez was elected the 26th president of Mexico after a bitter civil war. It was a politically contentious time, and the country was in deep debt to France, Britain and Spain, among other European nations. France, ruled by Napoleon III, took this as an opportunity to try to overthrow Juárez’s government and set up his own puppet regime with help from conservative allies within Mexico.

In January 1862, Napoleon’s French troops, bolstered by allies, stormed Veracruz (a major port city on the Gulf of Mexico), followed by Orizaba, about 80 miles west.

By early May, Juárez was driven to Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico that was heavily fortified by walls. Vastly outnumbered, Juárez’s ad hoc force of 2,000 men, led by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza, fought off assaults before the French finally withdrew in the early evening.