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Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico's independence day

The holiday is based in Mexican history — and not the event you might think.

Thursday is Cinco de Mayo and you've probably already seen local restaurants counting down the days. 

The holiday is often seen as a good reason to enjoy Mexican food and drinks, but many Americans don't know its history ⁠— or how it got to be so popular in the U.S. Many assume Cinco de Mayo is Mexico's Independence Day, but the holiday is actually about one specific battle.

What is Cinco de Mayo and why is it celebrated?

Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla, which happened on May 5, 1862. According to the Smithsonian, France invaded Mexico in response to Mexican President Benito Juarez’s decision to suspend payment of foreign debts.  

The Mexican soldiers at Puebla were heavily outnumbered, but they held off an elite fighting force.

It was a "small but inspirational victory" for Mexico, writes USC anthropology professor Kirby Farah for The Conversation. The French eventually defeated the Mexican Army and took control of the country from 1864 to 1867, but the Battle of Puebla sent a message ⁠— and some historians think it may have impacted U.S. history by preventing the French army from aiding the Confederacy.

MORE: How the story behind Cinco de Mayo shaped American history

How did it get so popular in America?

Farah writes that the battle was reportedly celebrated by Californians who viewed it as a victory for freedom.

Ix-Nic Iruegas, Executive Director of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington D.C., told VERIFY in 2021 that Cinco de Mayo was celebrated regionally in the U.S. "immediately after the battle in 1862."

"And then in ’63, it gained more prominence, and this is connected to the time after California joined the union, as the United States became interested in how the Mexicans defeated the French," Iruegas said.  

The city of Austin, Texas said in an article that Cinco de Mayo saw a resurgence in the U.S. in the 1960s when Chicano Movement activists raised awareness of the holiday, “in part because they identified with the victory of indigenous Mexicans over European invaders during the Battle of Puebla.”

So how did Cinco de Mayo celebrations become what they are today? Britannica said this holiday didn’t reach a wider demographic “until it was linked with the promotion of Mexican alcoholic beverages that many American festivities tended to both perpetuate negative stereotypes of Mexicans and promote excessive drinking.”

It's a relatively minor holiday in Mexico, mostly observed in Puebla. But in many U.S. cities, it has become a large-scale celebration of Mexican food, drinks and culture.

Is Cinco de Mayo Mexico's Independence Day?

No, but that's a common misconception. Mexico declared independence nearly 50 years before the Battle of Puebla. However, Iruegas said the battle helped solidify the Mexican national idea. 

READ MORE: No, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day

VERIFY researcher Mauricio Chamberlin contributed to this report.