May 5, Cinco de Mayo. The battle of Puebla, when Mexican peasants took on the world’s greatest army

On May 5, 1861, Mexican peasants took on the French army which hadn’t lost in 50 years.

The reenactment of the Battle of Puebla during Cinco de Mayo festivities. Photograph: Ulises Ruiz Basurto/EPA

In the US, 81m pounds of avocados and $2.9bn worth of margaritas are put away during Cinco de Mayo.

(Margaritas aren’t Mexican, by the way.)

Mexicans tend to prefer Mexico’s actual independence day, on 16 September.

So Cinco de Mayo isn’t such big a deal – except in Puebla where the battle was fought.

The battle of Puebla is reenacted on the original site.

A huge parade across the city features Mariachis, colorful costumes, tacos, dancing, and fireworks.

By 1861, Mexico was in serious debt to England, France, and Spain.

Napoleon III decided to go for the money, snag some land and possibly form a base to help the Confederate states win the war.

There were 4,500 Mexican soldiers and some 6,500 French.

On May 5th, at forts Loreto and Guadalupe, they somehow succeeded in fending off French troops.

Estimates place French casualties around 460 dead with almost that many wounded, while only 83 Mexicans were killed.

Zaragoza sent a message to Mexico City, famously declaring “The national arms (weapons) have covered themselves in glory.” (“Las armas nacionales se han cubierto de gloria” .)

Never mind that The French army returned the following year and won, this was an awesome victory.

This brief and improbable underdog victory is the true significance of Cinco de Mayo.

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.