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What is Cinco de Mayo?

Cinco de Mayo is observed annually on May 5 to commemorate the Battle of Puebla in 1862. On that day, 6,000 French troops attempted to gain territory in Mexico under Emperor Napoleon III by attacking the city of Puebla de Los Angeles in eastern Mexico. An outnumbered Mexican army defeated French invaders, who were forced to retreat after losing almost 500 soldiers. The unlikely victory became an important symbol in the fight for Mexico’s independence from European powers.

Today, Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Mexico are mostly confined to the state of Puebla, with military parades and festive activities. The holiday is more widely celebrated in the United States, especially in cities with large Mexican American populations, like Los Angeles and Chicago.

Celebrate with thoughtfulness

When learning about any culture, especially one that isn’t your own, it is important to reflect on the goals of your lesson or classroom activity. Aim to give students thoughtful context, and stay away from assumptions or stereotypes. Cinco de Mayo has been especially commercialized in the U.S., and it is critical to celebrate with your students in a respectful way. These articles may give you some food for thought before diving into planning an activity for your students:

Cinco de Mayo has evolved to celebrate not just a military victory, but also Mexico’s rich culture and heritage. Observe this day in your classroom by exploring the historical significance of this holiday, and honoring Mexican culture with your students.

Cinco de Mayo and the U.S. Civil War

Cinco de Mayo has important historical implications not only in Mexico, but in the U.S. as well. Historians believe the French defeat at the Battle of Puebla influenced the outcome of the U.S. Civil War.

France saw an opportunity to establish a colony in Mexico during the 1860s and sent over troops to invade the country. Around the same time, the Civil War had broken out in the U.S. Thanks to Union blockades, cotton grown in the Confederate states had become scarce in Europe. In exchange for this cotton, Napoleon III wanted to supply munitions to the Confederacy.

The French defeat in Mexico on May 5, 1862, caused the army to retreat for an entire year. This delay meant the French didn’t supply the Confederacy with weapons. By 1863, the Union was winning the Civil War as the Confederacy continued to weaken. If indigenous Mexicans had not won the Battle of Puebla, the outcome of the Civil War might have been different.

Learn about this history with your students, and ask them to discuss the possible implications if Mexico had not driven back French troops. You can also talk about concepts such as colonialism and imperialism.

Cinco de Mayo and the Chicano Movement

In the 20th century, Mexican Americans brought Cinco de Mayo to the forefront again. During the Chicano civil rights movement, activists celebrated the holiday as a way to express pride in their culture and heritage. They identified with indigenous Mexican soldiers who staved off European invaders as they fought for equality and social justice 100 years later.

Learn about this movement with your students and listen to some Chicano activist songs performed in Spanish and English. Incorporate themes such as civil rights, labor laws, and equality, which were all central to the Chicano movement. Ask students how cultural holidays like Cinco de Mayo impact communities, and why they are important.

Other ways to honor Mexican culture

You can also use this holiday to celebrate Mexican and Mexican American historical figures. Learn about their contributions to the arts, human rights, and other aspects of society.

Here are some other ideas and resources as you plan to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and Mexican culture:

However you celebrate, we’d love to hear about it! Share your ideas and lessons on social media using #UnitingOurWorld.

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