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What is the real meaning behind Cinco de Mayo?

Monday - 5/5/2014, 10:41am  ET

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The band Mariachi Real de Mexico waits to perform on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange ahead of the Cinco de Mayo holiday before the closing bell on May 3, 2013. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- It's Cinco de Mayo. The guacamole is prepped, the beers are cold and it's time to celebrate ... what exactly?

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is a minor holiday. But in the United States, it's an excuse to party.

A quick WTOP Facebook survey over the weekend asked social media users how many people know the real meaning behind the holiday.

Only one person got the answer right, while some referenced Independence Day, beer and St. Patrick's Day:

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla in which Mexican forces drove back the French army, who was there to collect an unsettled debt.

At the time, Mexico was essentially bankrupt, thanks to a bloody and costly civil war known as the Reform War. When President Benito Juarez took office in 1861, he inherited a large debt from his predecessor but had no way to pay it.

Hoping to buy some time, he suspended repayment to France, Spain and England for two years.

Juarez came to an agreement with Spain and England, but France, under the rule of the infamous Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, didn't want to wait for its repayment. Instead, the French decided to invade.

On May 5, 1862, French forces descended on Puebla, just 100 miles from Mexico City. Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza only had an army of 4,000, many of them farmers, equipped with old rifles and machetes. Still, the ragtag army managed to push the French all the way back to the coast.

One year later, France marched on Mexico again, and this time won. Juarez was forced into exile and European forces occupied the country until 1867.

Cinco de Mayo became popular in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s by Chicano activists who saw it as a way to build Mexican-American pride, National Geographic reports.

"As a community, we are tough and committed, and we believe that we can prevail," Robert Con Davis-Undiano, a professor of Chicano studies at the University of Oklahoma, tells National Geographic.

"Mexican-Americans, other Latinos and literally everyone can feel proud and motivated by that message."

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