Puebla in the spotlight: the home of Cinco de Mayo


Hundreds of thousands of visitors are descending on the city to witness historical reenactments celebrating the Mexican armys unlikely 1862 victory

It is a popular misconception that Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of Mexican independence (which is actually on the 16 September). Instead, it commemorates an improbable military victory, when the Mexican army beat French forces on 5 May 1862 after Napoleon III invaded the country.

In the US the festivity has evolved into a celebration of Mexican-American culture during which 81m pounds of avocados are consumed and $2.9bn is spent on margaritas each year. In Mexico Cinco de Mayo isnt such big a deal except in Puebla where the battle was fought.

Cinco de Mayo brings more than 300,000 visitors to the city across the month of May. The battle of Puebla is reenacted on the original site, and a huge parade across the city features Mariachis, colourful costumes, tacos, dancing and fireworks. The battle still holds symbolic significance even if the French won their counterattack a year later.

Located on the other side of the Popocatpetl volcano from Mexico City, Puebla is a fast-growing metropolis with a Unesco World Heritage colonial centre and a rich culture, gastronomy and artisanship. It prides itself on some classics of Mexican cuisine, such as mole poblano.

The city was founded almost 500 years ago by groups of Spaniards as a transit city between Mexico City and Veracruz. Today it mixes a historical conservative core with a liberal, cosmopolitan present. Its an eclectic, Baroque place, characterised by kindness, but also distrust sometimes its a bit two-faced. While in the coast people talk loudly, Pueblans are heard through whispers. If you get on public transport here, people will speak in murmurs, says scar Alarcn, professor, writer and director at neotraba.com.

Puebla has seen a huge resurgence of culture and tourism in the last few years, which many attribute to the influx of students to the Autonomous University of Puebla and similar institutions.

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

The city in numbers

4th largest city in Mexico, following Mexico City, Ecatepec and Guadalajara

450 metres the width of the nearby Cholula pyramid, the largest in the world, which is partly hidden inside a mountain

15 the number of years it took the Puebla state to get recognised as one of the certified origin areas for mezcal. It happened this March, though 116 municipalities in the region have been producing it since colonial times

13 metres the height of Cuexomate, a geyser often mistakenly called the smallest volcano in the world located in the centre of town. Its said that in ancient times the bodies of those who had committed suicide were thrown into the geysers eight metre crater as it was believed they didnt deserve a proper burial

2015 the year of the last alleged UFO sighting in nearby Popocatpetl volcano. The area of Atlixco, close to the city, is famous among aficionados

and pictures

Puebla in sound and vision

Tear This Heart Out by Roberto Sneider is perhaps the most emblematic film featuring Puebla. Based on a novel by ngeles Mastretta, it is set in the city in the 1930s and follows an arranged marriage between a young woman and a politician.

The city itself breeds a diversity of music. Puebla-based novelist Aura Xilonen says: Bands set up in markets and they play music all night: mambo, tropical, tambora, cumbia and bachata. My friends listen to everything from Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or Schumann, current electronic music or your Gagas and Biebers, to rarities like John Cage or the strangest Mexican musician thats ever lived: Julin Carrillo.

History in 100 words

Puebla was founded by the Spanish in 1531, initially as Ciudad de los ngeles (City of Angels). It was designed to be a town for Spaniards a legacy that is still alive today as they passed through between Veracruz and Mexico City. It has been in constant growth since, becoming the fourth-largest city in the country. In 1862, it played a symbolic role in Mexicos history when the Battle of Puebla stopped French troops from invading Mexico City albeit temporarily. Today, it is reinventing itself as a tourist hub in its own right, despite its proximity to the capital.

Whats everyone talking about?

Unlike much of Mexico, Puebla has not been as affected by narco violence; at the moment the biggest issue is the rising number of femicides. This week,the grim count reached 37 women and girls killed often by their partners since the beginning of the year. Its not so much related to narco as to a daily problem inside the Mexican machos mindset that still endures, says Alarcn.

Another talking point are the huachicoleros, or oil thieves, who put illegal taps into the fuel pipeline network to sell on the black market. The problem became prominent when a huge Audi plant opened in Puebla in October 2016, and this type of illegal trade proliferated around its construction.

The people also dont particularly trust their government, says Pueblan author Jaime Mesa. He says its mostly due to government spending on gigantic infrastructure projects, such as an elevated cycling lane that has been criticised for squandering money. On the other hand, the mayor, Luis Banck, has made a point of using public transport and has spearheaded a yearly Day without Cars (a Mexican politician on a bike is a rare sight). The city also recently inaugurated a public bike-sharing system.

Whats next for the city?

Four years away from celebrating its half millennium, Puebla is continuing to expand. The city council wants to consolidate it as a place not just to visit, but to move to and they cite Barcelona as a model. To that end, it has restored much of its heritage property and built 20 museums; and it is hosting Latin Americas first Smart Cities conference in June. However, the city faces some internal challenges like uncontrolled growth in neighbourhoods in the south, growing inequality, and cleaning up its river, the Atoyac, polluted by decades of residue dumping.

Close Zoom

Lado B stands out for its fierce independence from any government influence. It publishes investigative journalism on Puebla and was recently consulted by the New York Times for a story on hacking an internal election in Pueblas Pan political party. Neotraba, e-consulta and Leviatn are all reliable.

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