How Cinco de Mayo Works

Cinco de Mayo dancers
Women perform a traditional dance during Cinco de Mayo. Junko Richie/EyeEm/Getty Images


Most Americans have heard of the holiday Cinco de Mayo, but not everyone knows what it celebrates. It is not, as some believe, Mexico's Independence Day. (That's September 16). The festivities that occur on the fifth day of May commemorate a battle that was fought almost 50 years after Mexico declared its independence from Spain — a battle fought against the French in 1862.

Cinco de Mayo (which literally means the fifth of May in Spanish) is actually a minor holiday in Mexico. But in cities across the United States wherever there are large groups of people of Mexican descent, you'll find Cinco de Mayo celebrations going on that honor Mexican culture and heritage.

The fifth of May means partying in traditional Mexican style, but its significance goes beyond mariachi bands and piñatas. In this article, you will learn about the roots of Cinco de Mayo and how this holiday is celebrated in the U.S.

Cinco de Mayo History

Cinco de Mayo parade, Detroit
A young girl pulls a Mexican flag at a Cinco de Mayo parade on May 4, 2014, in Detroit, Michigan.
Paul Warner/Getty Images

After the 1846 Mexican-American War, in which boundaries were clarified after Texas became the 28th U.S. state, Mexico entered a period of political and financial hardship. The Mexican civil war lasted from 1858 to 1861 and left Mexico without a stable support structure. To supplement a deflated economy, Mexico borrowed a great deal of money from other countries. Among those countries were England, Spain and France.

In 1862, all three European powers came to collect. Their navies arrived in Mexico to demand payment and land to settle the debts, but Mexico offered vouchers instead, essentially asking for more time. England and Spain accepted and went home; France invaded, seeking total control of Mexico.

Under Napoleon III, French troops began at the shore and tried to make their way to Mexico City. Before they could get to the capital, they were stopped at the state of Puebla, where a major battle took place on May 5, 1862: La Batalla de Puebla.

Outnumbered and outarmed, the Mexican soldiers at Puebla, under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, managed to defeat the French forces. Ultimately, the Mexican victory at Puebla only delayed the French invasion of Mexico city, and a year later, the French occupied Mexico. But the Mexican men who fought at Puebla nonetheless defied the odds to defend its independence. Cinco de Mayo celebrates that bravery and determination, and commemorates Mexico's fight to ward off imperialist forces.

The first celebration of Cinco de Mayo in the U. S. was in 1863, in Southern California, as a show of solidarity with Mexico against French rule. The French had supported the Confederate Army during the American Civil War that was going on at the same time [source: Barbezat].

Cinco de Mayo Celebrations in Mexico and the U.S.

Aztec drumming, Cinco de Mayo celebration, California
Martin Tellez (L) teaches his daughter Rebecca Tellez drum rhythms after participating in a performance depicting Aztec culture and history at a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Forest Lawn memorial park May 5, 2003, in Glendale, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

Cinco de Mayo is not a public holiday in Mexico, but it is observed there, most intensely in Puebla, where the actual battle took place. In Puebla, there is a reenactment of the battle. Men dress as French and Mexican soldiers and generals, and women wear the clothing of the soldaderos, the women who cooked for and looked after the soldiers in wartime. In some representations, the Mexican soldiers carry machetes and old gun-powder rifles, and the French soldiers carry bags with wine bottles sticking out. In other reenactments, fruit is used as ammunition, so the worst injury possible is an apple to the head. In addition to the parades, there are fiestas featuring Mexican food (like the regional specialty Mole Poblano), Mexican music, including mariachi bands, piñatas for the kids and fireworks at the end of the day. Tequila is not the drink of choice: It's agua fresca (fruit juices and flavored waters) [source: Avakian].

Cinco de Mayo became popular in the U.S. in the 1960s when Chicano activists in America raised awareness of the holiday, relating to it as a battle of indigenous Mexicans triumphing over imperialist European forces. In cities like San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, St. Paul, Chicago and Los Angeles, you'll find Cinco de Mayo celebrations featuring carnivals, street fairs and multiday festivals. Parades, food, dancing and music round out the festivities. There might also be hot pepper or jalapeno-eating contests and Miss Cinco de Mayo pageants.

The largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in the world is in Los Angeles. There, Cinco de Mayo festivities attract hundreds of thousands of people. Red, white and green — the colors of the Mexican flag — are the dominant tones on the blocks around City Hall, and a portrait of General Zaragoza adorns the stage where the mayor of Los Angeles delivers a speech in Spanish.

In recent years, there has been some backlash about the Cinco de Mayo holiday from some Mexican-Americans objecting to its cultural appropriation by whites and other non-Hispanic Americans. (The holiday only came to national consciousness in 1989 in a Cinco de Mayo-themed ad for the Mexican beer Corona [source: Yobage].) Today, almost every bar and Mexican restaurant in the U.S. has some kind of promotion for Cinco de Mayo and people will often don sombreros and fake mustaches to "get into the spirit" of the day.

"Along with the ubiquitous use of stereotype in Cinco de Mayo, the holiday only celebrates Mexican culture as a consumable culture: Mexico is a drink, a taco, the lime in the Corona.... The awareness of Mexican culture simply serves as a guise for people to get drunk on a Tuesday night," wrote essayist Feliks Garcia in 2015. Others point out it's OK to celebrate at a Mexican restaurant — but it sure wouldn't hurt to bone up on the history of the holiday and on Mexican culture in general. But please, no sombreros or fake accents.

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Last editorial update on May 5, 2020 11:20:45 am.