Today is Cinco de Mayo (Fifth of May). Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican victory against the French at the Battle of Puebla. The various on-going parties, which the majority are not even celebrations of the victory, are a product of American cultural forces.
In late 1861 and early 1862m France, Spain, and the United Kingdom invaded Mexico over debts (The British and Spanish quickly left when they realized French imperialist goals). After a series of easy victories and non-confrontations, the French military encountered an outnumbered garrison at Puebla. The French launched a poorly supported assault against Mexican fortifications on hills north of the town. The Mexicans lost 83 men while the French suffered over 400 loses.
The loss convinced the French that a quick military victory was impossible. So by 1863 French Emperor Napoleon III sent reinforcements. The newly boosted French army quickly seized Mexico City. Until 1867, the French and Conservative Party of Mexico backed government was in power of much of the country. Their unity government was known as the Second Mexican Empire.
However, the victory at Puebla was remembered locally and nationally at first. Mexican President Beneito Juarez wanted the day to be a federal holiday. However, memory faded and most Mexicans have the big celebrations on September 16 which is Mexico's Independence Day (if you want to see Mexicans celebrate then watch El Grito de Dolores).
The 1960s and Today
Some Mexicans and Americans of Mexican-descent celebrated Cinco de Mayo but it was never a truly big thing. Most celebrations were either in Puebla or in parts of Mexico City where those originally from Puebla lived. Then the 1960s something happened. No one can quite agree on what exactly occurred but what is agreed on is that Latino activists wanted a holiday for Mexican-Americans to be proud of. Couple with this is the story of Coors Beer and boycotts against them by Latinos and a possible origin point is located. Americans along the border started to have festivities on Cinco de Mayo slowly at first but soon the celebrations quickly gained in number and intensity.
Even though the "why" is still ambiguous one thing is clear: Cinco de Mayo as we know it today is an American celebration. In the border region of the United States, Mexican heritage celebrations occur in great numbers. Many Latino-activist groups also use the day to teach about Latino heritage (but not necessarily about the battle). The only reason most non-Hispanos in America know about the day is because of the aggressive market campaign by beer companies and restaurants. The day is now of general Mexican-pride for some and drinking for others (A Mexican-themed Saint Patrick's Day).
It has long been said that Saint Patrick's Day is the one day where everybody is Irish. It would be fascinating to see a study of identity and Cinco de Mayo. Do non-Hispanos go through the pretense of celebrating as if they were Mexicans or is just purely a drinking day for them?
What ever the case: HAPPY CINCO DE MAYO!