Many people who celebrate Cinco de Mayo are unaware of the holiday’s fascinating history. Learn everything you need to know right here.
1. Cinco de Mayo Commemorates the Battle of Puebla
The holiday of Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican army’s victory over the French in a little-known battle, reenacted above.
In 1862, the Mexican army defeated France’s forces at the Battle of Puebla. This battle was one of many such altercations that took place during the Franco-Mexican War, which ran from 1861-1867.
History.com writes that the war was caused by a financial conflict. Mexican President Benito Juárez took over the country in 1861, but Mexico was deeply in debt. When Mexico defaulted on debts it owed in Europe, French leader Napoleon III decided to annex part of Mexico in retaliation.
The Battle of Puebla took place at Puebla de Los Angeles, located in Eastern Mexico. The Mexican forces were outnumbered 3-to-1, but they still managed to prevail. It was not a major strategic win, but the underdog success of the Mexicans in this battle became a rallying point in the years to come.
2. Awareness of Cinco de Mayo Grew in the 1950s & 1960s
According to National Geographic, Cinco de Mayo became popularized by activists in the 1950s and 1960s. Chicano activists publicized the holiday as a way to educate Mexican-Americans about their cultural history, and the holiday also served as a way for Anglo-Americans to better understand Mexican culture.
3. Cinco de Mayo Is Not Mexican Independence Day
Many people think that Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican equivalent of Independence Day, a sort of “Fourth of July” for our neighbors from south of the border. In fact, Mexican Independence Day is not celebrated in May. It is celebrated on September 16, and also goes by the name “Grito de Dolores.”
Grito de Dolores means “shout of Dolores,” and it refers to the origins of the independence movement in Mexico. The independence movement began in the small town of Dolores, in the year 1810.
4. Alcohol Companies Popularize Cinco de Mayo as a Drinking Holiday
So how did Cinco de Mayo transition from a historical holiday into a booze-fueled day of drinks and debauchery? Marketplace writes that Cinco de Mayo is an “American-ized” holiday, thanks to the efforts of beer companies and other large corporations.
It is the alcohol industry that is most responsible for the commercialization and popularization of Cinco de Mayo as a drinking holiday. National Geographic notes that this commercialization of the holiday began in the 1980s.
Marketplace, citing Nielsen figures, writes that Americans bought more than $600 million worth of beer for Cinco de Mayo 2013: a number that dwarfs other “big drinking” days like Super Bowl Sunday and St. Paddy’s Day. In particular, sales of Mexican-style beer increase by 15 percent during the week of Cinco de Mayo.
5. Some People of Mexican Descent Do Not Celebrate Cinco de Mayo
In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is most frequently around Puebla. Traditional celebrations include music, a parade, and dancing. Other regions of Mexico may not celebrate at all, and Cinco de Mayo is not a bank holiday in Mexico.
Lesley Tellez, a writer specializing in Mexican food and culture, tells NPR that when she moved to Mexico City, she did not see any Cinco de Mayo festivities.
She added that Cinco de Mayo does still have meaning for her, despite the fact that not all Mexicans celebrate it:
“I really view it today as a Mexican-American holiday, even though, yeah, you know, it is tied to beer and margaritas a lot of the time. I do think you could use it as a point of reflection about your own identity as a Mexican-American person. Thinking about contributions Mexican-Americans have made to the U.S., our food, really reveling in what our culture brings to the table in the U.S. I think it is a great day to do that.”
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