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Cinco de Mayo marks the day Mexico took on a giant in 1862 and held its ground

Dressed as French and Mexican soldiers, people stage a recreation of the Battle of Puebla during Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Mexico City last year. On May 5, 1862, 4,000 Mexican troops drove back 8,000 French in a 2-hour battle.

Associated Press (2010)

Dressed as French and Mexican soldiers, people stage a recreation of the Battle of Puebla during Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Mexico City last year. On May 5, 1862, 4,000 Mexican troops drove back 8,000 French in a 2-hour battle.

It's Cinco de Mayo on Thursday. Perhaps you're heading to a local pub to munch on tacos and throw back salt-rimmed margaritas.

But do you know the history behind the party?

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the day in 1862 when the Mexican army fought back and defeated the French army in a David-and-Goliath-like battle.

That year, Napoleon III invaded Mexico to collect money owed France. Historians say Napoleon really wanted to take over his enemy, the United States. President Abraham Lincoln was busy with the Civil War and did not get involved in the ensuing fight near Mexico City.

The Battle of Puebla lasted two hours. The Mexican army, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, was 4,000 strong. They wielded machetes and ingenuity to defeat Napoleon's better-equipped force of 8,000 soldiers, so the story goes.

For Mexican-Americans, who make up 10 percent of the nation's population, Cinco de Mayo is a holiday that stokes national pride.

"The fact that an underdog, less-trained and less-equipped Mexican army did not allow the very powerful French army to advance to Mexico City has become a rallying point for many Mexican immigrants, and now their U.S.-born children," said Robin Gomez, auditor for the city of Clearwater and the city's Hispanic-Latino liaison.

In Tampa Bay, there are about 87,000 Mexican-Americans, according to the latest census. They represent the second-largest Hispanic group behind Puerto Ricans.

Gomez says most local Mexicans understand the significance of the day, but most Americans, including other Hispanics, haven't much of a clue.

Many mistakenly believe the holiday is Mexico's Independence Day. Actually, that falls on Sept. 16, when Mexico pays homage to Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest who tolled his church bell in 1810 to proclaim the country's freedom from Spain.

Unlike Mexico's Independence event, May 5 is not a big deal south of the border, save for the state of Puebla, where festivals and parades are common.

The first Cinco de Mayo celebration was in California in 1863. But the holiday didn't really take off in the United States until the 1960s.

Cinco de Mayo saw a boost in popularity in the 1980s, partly fueled by Mexican beer and tequila companies pumping up the event as another St. Patrick's Day, historians say.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has taken note, coining the slogan "Amigos don't let amigos drive drunk." They also warned in an advertisement: "Drive impaired on Cinco de Mayo and spend seis de Mayo in jail."

Cinco de Mayo marks the day Mexico took on a giant in 1862 and held its ground 05/01/11 [Last modified: Sunday, May 1, 2011 7:36pm]
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