Many Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but how many actually know the story of the holiday? Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo doesn\u2019t mark Mexican Independence, which is celebrated on Sept. 16. Instead, it\u2019s meant to commemorate the Battle of Puebla, which was fought between the Mexican and French armies in 1862. In Mexico\u2019s long and storied history, the Battle of Puebla is generally considered a fairly minor event. But its legacy lives on a century and a half later, particularly in the United States. Beating back an empireAfter Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, other nations were reluctant to recognize the autonomy of the fledgling country. In the ensuing decades, Mexico lost a large portion of its land to the U.S. and entered into a period of economic and political instability. This was punctuated by a civil war in the late 1850s that resulted in Benito Ju\u00e1rez, Mexico\u2019s first indigenous president, taking power in 1861. One of Juarez\u2019s first acts was canceling repayments on foreign loans in an attempt to protect Mexico\u2019s struggling economy. This angered Britain, Spain and France, and prompted them to send a joint expeditionary force to Mexico. However, Britain and Spain quickly withdrew as it became clear that French ruler Napoleon III was more interested in overthrowing the new Mexican government. [rebelmouse-image 23593147 original_size="237x310" expand=1] During the battle, French forces outnumbered the Mexicans two to one. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SAThe Battle of Puebla took place on May 5, 1862, when the Mexican Army, led by Commander General Ignacio Zaragoza, repelled attacks by the French army on the city of Puebla, located about 70 miles southeast of Mexico City. It was a small but inspirational victory for Mexico, and four days later, on May 9, 1862, Ju\u00e1rez declared Cinco de Mayo a national holiday. Even though the French would eventually defeat the Mexican Army and take control of the country under the short-lived Second Mexican Empire, which lasted from 1864 to 1867, the victory in the Battle of Puebla sent a powerful message to the rest of the world. The Mexican Army was outnumbered two to one by seasoned French troops, so Mexico proved itself to be a formidable opponent worthy of international respect. And the fact that the country was led by an indigenous president held a special symbolic significance.An inadvertent impact on US history?The Battle of Puebla may have also had an inadvertent impact on the United States, which, at the time, was embroiled in its Civil War. Sociologist David Hayes, author of \u201cEl Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition,\u201d has argued that by defeating the French at the Battle of Puebla, Mexicans prevented the French army from continuing northward toward the U.S. border, where they would have likely aided the Confederacy. So it\u2019s possible that Mexico\u2019s victory at the Battle of Puebla changed the course of American history. The Battle of Puebla was reportedly celebrated in the state of California, which still had strong ties to Mexico; aligned with the Union, the state\u2019s citizens viewed the victory as a defense of freedom. For almost a century, few in the United States celebrated Cinco de Mayo. But it reemerged as an important holiday in California in the mid-20th century, sparked by the growing Chicano movement. The David versus Goliath story fittingly mirrored the struggle for civil rights. [rebelmouse-image 23593148 original_size="754x589" expand=1] Mexican-American labor activist Cesar Chavez served as the Grand Marshall of Los Angeles\u2019 Cinco de Mayo parade in 1991. AP Photo/Chris MartinezCompanies cash inThe widespread commercialization of Cinco de Mayo occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. Beer companies, in particular, targeted Mexican Americans, exhorting them to celebrate their heritage with Coronas, Bud Lights and Dos Equis. Commodification of Mexican and Mexican American heritage soon followed, and today\u2019s revelers purchase pi\u00f1atas, Mexican flag paraphernalia, sombreros and costumes that can veer towards the offensive.While more and more Americans \u2013 regardless of their ethnic heritage \u2013 take part in the festivities, few know what Cinco de Mayo commemorates. One survey found that only 10% of Americans could describe the holiday\u2019s origins. [rebelmouse-image 23593149 original_size="754x578" expand=1] Miami Marlins baseball fans don sombreros and hold up placards to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeThe complicated legacy of Cinco de Mayo serves as a reminder that the past is made meaningful in different ways by different people. For Mexicans \u2013 especially those living outside of the modern city of Puebla \u2013 the holiday is of minor significance, dwarfed in comparison to much more important national and religious holidays, like Mexican Independence Day and Day of the Dead. However, reenactments of the Battle of Puebla still take place in modern Puebla as well as in Mexico City\u2019s Pe\u00f1on de los Ba\u00f1os neighborhood. For many Mexican Americans, the day holds a special significance as an opportunity to celebrate their shared heritage. But given the creeping commercialization of the holiday, some Mexican Americans have expressed ambivalence about celebrating it.And for Americans without Mexican ancestry, the holiday seems to simply serve as an excuse to drink margaritas.[rebelmouse-image 23593150 alt="The Conversation" original_size="1x1" expand=1]Kirby Farah, Lecturer of Anthropology, University of Southern California \u2013 Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and SciencesThis article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.