Cinco de Mayo is coming up, a holiday mostly known in the United States as a colorful, festive celebration that involves lively music, margaritas, and delicious Mexican fare. What is this holiday really all about? Here are six things you might not have known about Cinco de Mayo and its origins:
It’s NOT the Mexican Independence Day.
A common misconception is that Cinco de Mayo marks Mexico’s celebration of independence, but that date is September 16. On that day in 1810, Roman Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla encouraged citizens to revolt against the Spanish regime. The date is marked as the most important revolution in Mexico and the beginning of Mexico’s fight for independence (which wasn’t actually declared until 1821).
It celebrates Mexico’s unlikely defeat of France invaders.
The three-year War of Reform between Mexico’s two competing governments left the country with tens of millions in debt to foreigners. The president of Mexico suspended payment for foreign debt for two years, which of course upset those French, British, and Spanish debt holders. Those countries invaded, but Britain and Spain withdrew after negotiating a settlement. France, however, decided it was a great time to take over Mexico, and attacked Puebla de Los Angeles. Despite being far outnumbered and without the heavy artillery of the French—whose army was considered one of the best in the world—the Mexican army won the battle on May 5, 1862.
The May 5 win was more symbolic than strategic.
Mexico’s victory at the Battle of Puebla didn’t stop France from taking over the country after Emperor Napoleon III sent 30,000 more troops to conquer both Puebla and Mexico City. After four years of occupation, France finally withdrew, but the Mexican government continued to recognize May 5 as a symbolic victory for Mexico. The event is still considered to be a historic triumph and great source of pride for Mexico.
May 5 is not a federal holiday in Mexico.
Cinco de Mayo is observed in the state of Puebla, where the Battle of Puebla occurred, and while the rest of the country celebrates the holiday, it is not a federal holiday. Puebla, which is considered Mexico’s food capital, has the largest Cinco de Mayo in Mexico with a military parade, art exhibitions, dance and theatrical performances (leading up to and on May 5), and delicious food.
The holiday has Texas roots.
Believe it or not, a small town in Texas may very well be as excited about Cinco de Mayo as some towns in Mexico. The Mexican army that defeated the French forces was led by Ignacio Zaragoza, who was born in the Mexican Texas village of Bahia del Espiritu Santo—now Goliad, Texas. At just 15, Zaragoza left for Monterrey, Mexico, to enter the seminary, but ended up joining the army—and leading the Mexicans to victory at the Battle of Puebla many years later. Goliad’s Zaragoza Society has an annual Cinco de Mayo fiesta, with live music, arts and crafts booths, and lots more.
The largest Cinco de Mayo street fair in the world is in…
Any guesses? Los Angeles, California! Fiesta Broadway has been going on since 1990, celebrating the culture of Latin Americans and Mexicans by way of a mile-long street fair in downtown L.A. The day includes vendor booths, food, live Latin American music, games, piñata-breaking, and more.
Now that you’re up to speed on what Cinco de Mayo really stands for, it’s time to plan your own celebration. Get together with friends at a local Mexican restaurant, check out the impressive 30th annual Cinco de Mayo celebration in Denver if you’re local, or put on some mariachi music and make yourself some Cinco de Mayo margarita guacamole, courtesy of the California Avocado Commission. Whatever you do, have fun learning a little about Mexican culture. Happy Cinco de Mayo!