Why Americans Celebrate Cinco de Mayo
Every year on May 5, countless Americans head out to the nearest Tex-Mex restaurant and order margaritas and chips for Cinco de Mayo.
Most of them think they're celebrating Mexican independence day, which couldn't be more wrong, given that this significant holiday is actually on Sept. 16. Others believe it is the Day of the Dead, another important Mexican holiday that takes place on Nov. 2.
So, what is Cinco de Mayo? And why do Americans celebrate it? The answer is as random as it is interesting.
Cinco de Mayo Meaning and History
The meaning of Cinco de Mayo has nothing to do with the United States. Instead, it commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla, in which overpowered Mexican troops managed to defeat the French army.
Let's back up a year to understand why the French were even fighting Mexico. In 1861, President Benito Juárez declared that Mexico would not be paying its debts to other nations for a brief period of time. The Europeans were not happy about that, so England, Spain and France sent troops to Mexico.
A year later, the British and Spanish were gone, having reached an agreement with the Mexican government. But Emperor Napoleon III — who, not coincidentally, was the last king of France — wanted to make his country relevant again. He had his eyes set on conquering parts of the Americas, especially since France had lost much of its territories in the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War) and after the Louisiana Purchase.
Mexico Defeats French Forces
By May 5, 1962, Mexico had enjoyed almost 51 years of independence, and it was not about to let another European country try to invade it (especially not after spending more than a decade fighting to kick the Spanish out).
With this spirit blazing their souls, a poorly equipped, 2,000-man army led by General Ignacio Zaragoza found itself confronting 6,000 French soldiers in the city of Puebla de Los Angeles. The soldiers were primarily mestizos (of mixed race) or Zapotec, an indigenous group in the area. Though out-gunned and out-numbered, the Mexican army defeated French forces after a single day! (We're still waiting for the Linn Manuel Miranda musical about this.)
We're sure you're impressed — who wouldn't be? But now that you know the history of Cinco de Mayo, let us tell you how it became important in the United States.
Time to Celebrate
We'd love to tell you that the French ran off with their tail between their legs after the Battle of Puebla, but we don't like to lie. In reality, France didn't withdraw from Mexico until 1867.
Still, everyone loves an underdog win, and Mexicans held on to the victory in Puebla as a symbol of their strength against European colonialism. Four days after the battle, the day became a national holiday. By May 27, news of it had reached Mexican miners living in California, and they did not hesitate to celebrate either.
In the upcoming decades, Mexican Americans began celebrating the day to show pride in Mexican culture, especially in a country where they often faced racism and discrimination. As the Mexican population in the U.S. grew, so did this sentiment. Around the 1980s, businesses realized they could make money from the day and co-opted it to sell chips, beer and tacky hats.
Cinco de Mayo Today
Today, the state of Puebla and its eponymous capital city still commemorate the historic battle. Parades and events are common, and the city was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza, after the brave General who led troops in the battle. Throughout the year, you can visit the Interactive Museum of the Battle of May 5.
You can also enjoy a unique Cinco de Mayo celebration if you're near Mexico City on May 5. A reenactment of the battle has taken place at Peñón de los Bañosnear the airport since the 1930s.
But bar from this fun historic reenactment, most regions in Mexico don't celebrate the battle at all. If they do, it's usually with small, very local events. Even in Puebla, Cinco de Mayo isn't significant enough to be a veritable holiday, as nothing closes and no one gets the day off work.
Most likely, Mexicans outside of Puebla don't really need to remember the event, as impressive as it is. There are other celebrations that fit a national identity more, and the battle was not a defining enough moment in the history of the country as a whole.
'Happy Cinco de Mayo' in the United States
Instead, Cinco de Mayo is more widely celebrated in the United States than in Mexico. The day has gained significance because it gives people a chance to celebrate their heritage on a national scale. No other holiday gives Mexicans so much exposure in the U.S., so people have clung to it on purpose.
Then, of course, there are the people (about 40 percent of Americans) who still think they're cheering for Mexico's independence and who just want an excuse to get drunk. And while there's nothing wrong with finding a reason to party, it's entirely possible to eat great and authentic Mexican food and drink a lot of tequila and mezcal while appreciating rather than reducing a country's history.
The first step is to know the history of Cinco de Mayo, which you now do. The only thing we ask is that you never, ever refer to the holiday as "Cinco de Drinko."