An L.A. history professor says that the Mexican military victory over the French at Puebla prevented the French from aiding the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War.

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WASHINGTON — Now comes the time of year for stressed office workers and the college-age party crowd to cut loose, don culturally stereotypical outfits, turn up the appropriate folk music, and drink.

No, not St. Patrick’s Day. The other one: Cinco de Mayo. But like its Irish cousin, this regional Mexican holiday may be more of a big deal in the U.S. than in its home country.

Cinco de Mayo marks Mexico’s victory over the invading French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Outnumbered by as much as 3 to 1 — accounts differ — the Mexican defenders held off 6,000 soldiers from what at the time was one of the best armies in the world.

The victory was short-lived, however: 30,000 more French troops arrived later, overran Puebla and marched on to occupy large parts of Mexico.

So why celebrate the May 5 victory, especially in the U.S.?

“The answer is simple: Celebration of the Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican holiday,” University of California, Los Angeles professor David Hayes-Bautista wrote in 2009. “It is an American Civil War holiday, created spontaneously by Mexicans and Latinos living in California who supported the fragile cause of defending freedom and democracy during the first years of that bloody war.”

Hayes-Bautista holds that the holiday belongs to the United States as much as Mexico and says that the fighting at Puebla prevented the French from aiding the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War.

“Far up in the gold country town of Columbia (California, now Columbia State Park), Mexican miners were so overjoyed at the news that they spontaneously fired off rifles shots and fireworks, sang patriotic songs and made impromptu speeches,” Hayes-Bautista wrote.

That California connection might explain why the biggest Cinco de Mayo celebration happens in Los Angeles each year. There’s another California connection: According to the California Avocado Commission, Americans will eat 81 million avocados — many of them in guacamole — as they drink margaritas and Mexican beer.