At this time, France possessed the world’s most powerful military and a global network of colonies. It was eager to expand its reach into the Western hemisphere, but the United States considered this to be its sphere of influence and defended it forcefully. In 1861, however, Mexico defaulted on its European loans. With the United States preoccupied with its own civil war and unlikely to intervene in Latin America, the French used Mexico’s late payment as a pretext for invasion.

Initially, the French military seemed unstoppable. After storming Veracruz, they aimed their sights on Mexico City. But having just recently freed themselves from the yolk of Spanish oppression, only to lose much of their territory to the U.S. shortly thereafter, Mexicans were not impressed enough by crêpes and croissants to give up what remained of their once vast nation.

On May 5, 1862, roughly 8,000 French troops met resistance as they passed through the state of Puebla on their way to seize the capital. With great military tact, the heavily outnumbered and poorly equipped Mexican forces routed the invading army. When word of Mexico’s victory reached California, Latinos and anti-Confederate Caucasian-Americans celebrated it together as a triumph over imperialism. This first celebration of Cinco de Mayo helped foster a brief warming of relations between Mexican-Americans and Caucasians in the United States.

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