Cinco de Mayo is probably one of the most celebrated and least understood holidays in the world. What is the meaning behind it? How is it celebrated and what does it mean to Mexicans?
Cinco de Mayo Meaning and History
Literally meaning “The Fifth of May,” Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican Holiday celebrating the Battle of Puebla, which took place on May 5, 1862. It was one of the few Mexican victories during France’s attempt to penetrate Mexico.
In 1861, France sent a massive army to invade Mexico once again. As was the case 20 years earlier, the intent was to collect on debts incurred during and after Mexico’s war of independence from Spain.
In 1864, the French brought in Maximilian of Austria. The man who would become Emperor of Mexico was a young European nobleman who barely spoke Spanish. Maximilian’s heart was in the right place, but most Mexicans did not want him. In 1867, he was overthrown and executed by forces loyal to President Benito Juarez.
Cinco de Mayo Led to a Dictator
During the Battle of Puebla, a young officer named Porfirio Diaz distinguished himself. Diaz subsequently rose rapidly through the military ranks as an officer and then as a politician. He even aiding Juarez in the fight against Maximillian.
In 1876, Diaz reached the presidency and did not leave until the Mexican Revolution kicked him out in 1911 after a rule of 35 years. Diaz remains one of the most important presidents in the history of Mexico, and he got his start on the original Cinco de Mayo.
Another common misconception is that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day. In actuality, Mexico celebrates its independence from Spain on September 16. It is a very important holiday in the country and not to be confused with Cinco de Mayo.
It was on September 16, 1810, that Father Miguel Hidalgo took to his pulpit in the village church of the town of Dolores. He invited his flock to take up arms and join him in overthrowing Spanish tyranny. This famous speech would be celebrated as the Grito de Dolores, or “The Cry of Dolores,” from then on.
How Big of a Deal Is Cinco de Mayo?
Cinco de Mayo is a big deal in Puebla, where the famous battle took place. However, it really isn’t as important as most people think. Independence Day on September 16 has much more significance in Mexico.
For some reason, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated more in the United States — by Mexicans and Americans alike — than it is in Mexico. There is one theory for why this is true.
At one time, Cinco de Mayo was widely celebrated in all of Mexico and by Mexicans living in former Mexican territories, such as Texas and California. After a while, it was ignored in Mexico but the celebrations continued north of the border where people never got out of the habit of remembering the famous battle.
It’s interesting to note that the largest Cinco de Mayo party takes place in Los Angeles, California. Every year, the people of Los Angeles celebrate “Festival de Fiesta Broadway” on May 5th (or on the closest Sunday). It’s a large, raucous party with parades, food, dancing, music, and more. Hundreds of thousands attend annually. It’s even bigger than the festivities in Puebla.
Cinco de Mayo Celebration
In Puebla and in many U.S. cities with large Mexican populations, there are parades, dancing, and festivals. Traditional Mexican food is served or sold. Mariachi bands fill town squares and a lot of Dos Equis and Corona beers are served.
It’s a fun holiday, really more about celebrating the Mexican way of life than about remembering a battle which happened over 150 years ago. It is sometimes referred to as a “Mexican St. Patrick’s Day.”
In the U.S., schoolchildren do units on the holiday, decorate their classrooms, and try their hand at cooking some basic Mexican foods. All over the world, Mexican restaurants bring in Mariachi bands and offer specials for what’s almost certain to be a packed house.
It’s easy to host a Cinco de Mayo party. Making basic Mexican food like salsa and burritos is not too complicated. Add some decorations and mix up a few margaritas and you’re good to go.