Cinco de Mayo, or the 5th of May is a day of celebration and festivities in the North and Central American countries of the United States of America and Mexico. It is seemingly Mexico’s most internationally recognized holiday while, for Americans, it is associated with celebrating Mexican culture, at a bright and colorful fiesta, with plenty of alcohol.
However, there is more to it. Studies show that many people celebrate the day without knowing the real reason behind it. Moreover, there are plenty of misconceptions regarding the holiday that still exist despite it being celebrated since 1862.
This post therefore, aims to explain why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated, how it is celebrated, what the day and its festivities mean for those who celebrate it and, debunks the myths surrounding the day.
Reason for Celebrating Cinco de Mayo
To understand why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated, we need to go back to the past.
In the 1800s, Mexico was in a tough spot financially, economically and politically. After having gained independence from Spain in 1821, and experiencing a civil war in the 50s, the situation remained difficult until Benito Juarez assumed power and became the president of Mexico.
During that time, Mexico was indebted to European powers such as Spain, the United Kingdom and France. However, one of the first acts of Benito Juarez as president was to halt these payments to ensure economic stability in Mexico. In reaction to this decision, the angered Europeans sent their military troops to Mexico. Before these troops could reach Mexico, the Mexican leaders managed to come to an agreement with Britain and Spain through diplomatic conversation so, they withdrew their forces.
However, France, which was ruled by Napoleon III at the time, was not interested in a conversation and instead, saw this as an opportunity to capture Mexican land. They sent their troops to the city of Veracruz and were en route to Mexico City when they faced the Mexican army in the city of Puebla on 5th May in 1862.
France had the strongest army in the world in that era and compared to them the Mexicans were outnumbered and equipped with inferior weaponry. There were around 6,000 Frenchmen while only 2,000 Mexican soldiers somehow arranged by Benito Juarez.
Despite their disadvantages, the Mexicans won the battle of Puebla and compelled the French forces to surrender and go back. It was through the exemplary leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza, the strategy applied by the large number of indigenous people in the Mexican army and the unity between the fighters that gained them their victory.
This win was huge for Mexico and as a result, the date stuck with the people as the day the Mexican troops defeated the strong Frenchmen despite all odds. Moreover, the city of Puebla was renamed from Puebla de Los Angeles to Puebla de Zaragoza in honour of the army’s leader and, just days after the battle, the president declared Cinco de Mayo as a holiday.
The conflict between Mexico and France continued for another 5 years nevertheless, the victory at the battle of Puebla still acts as a matter of pride for Mexico.
How did the Celebrations reach the USA?
People from Mexico and other Central and South American countries began migrating to California since 1848, in hopes to find gold during the time of the California Gold Rush. To their misfortune, they didn’t find a lot of gold so, they began to spread out to different states to search for work.
Over time, more and more people from Mexico and other Hispanic countries started moving to the USA, for better economic opportunities, a better quality of life, or to escape political conflicts. The celebrations reached the US, with the Mexican immigrants. However, it wasn’t very well known at this point, it was privately observed by a very small number of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. The first being celebrated in 1863 in Southern California.
The holiday gained popularity during the Chicano movement in the 1960s. Prior to the 1960s, Chicano was the term used as a racial slur to describe people of Mexican ancestry and heritage. During the movement however, Chicano activists, embraced the term, and associated it with their Mexican heritage instead. This was one of their ways to protest against those who’d display discriminatory behaviour against people of Mexican origin especially in areas of work, voting rights and education.
Additionally, the activists encouraged the Mexican Americans to stay in touch with their roots and be proud of their heritage. Cinco de Mayo was the celebration of choice for this purpose. This was because, the event itself was the perfect reflection of their goal, to stand strong, united and emerge victorious against all odds. This proved extremely inspirational for many Mexican Americans and gradually they began organizing small scale Cinco de Mayo festivals.
Initially, they were limited to the South Western part of the country, as it had the highest concentrations of the Mexican and Mexican-American population. Over time, the communities spread to other parts of the country as well. By the 1980s, the Hispanic population increased by 53% out of which 2/3rds were of Mexican origin. With this increase, schools in areas with high Mexican-American and Hispanic populations, began introducing Hispanic events into their curriculum, Cinco de Mayo being one of them. Soon after, municipal governments too would help organize Cinco de Mayo celebrations in these areas. Over time, local business, radio stations would sponsor and promote the events, resulting in the eventual evolution into the larger Cinco de Mayo celebrations that we know of today.
Cinco de Mayo Celebrations: United States vs Mexico
Today, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the USA, Mexico and in places around the world where the Mexican and Mexican-American diaspora is prominent.
If we compare the celebrations in Mexico and in the USA, you’ll be surprised to know that Cinco de Mayo is in fact celebrated more in the US than in Mexico. And, that their significance and celebrations also differ.
In the US, it is an appreciation and celebration of Mexican-American culture and identity more than anything else. In addition to that, it even appeals to other ethnicities especially those of European heritage because of the name and because of the European tradition to celebrate harvest and fertility in and around May. It becomes a festive time for all.
Though, not a federal holiday, people observe the occasion in the evenings, usually after school and work at festivals and parties with colourful parades, traditional dancers, arts and crafts, beauty pageants, live music, concerts, a display of traditional Mexican dishes and games. Some allow free admission while some charge a small fee for the entertainment.
At the aforementioned events, Mariachi groups and other folk music bands play live music and sing. The Mariachi wear their iconic black charro suits with traditional Mexican motifs and a straw or black coloured sombrero. They carry violins and guitarron mexicano, a large guitar with a deeper body which they play and sing Tejano, Cojunto and other Tex-Mex genre music to.
The parades include Folklorico dancers wearing regional traditional clothes and performing. Folklorico are a collection of dances, most popular being the Mexican hat dance, a type of courtship dance performed by both male and female dancers.
The females wear a skirt and blouse outfit called the China poblana featuring the iconic colourful skirt. These bright long skirts are star shaped and are worn by folk dancers. The skirts make it easy to move, spin and fold the fabric, as required by their choreographies. Like the Mariachi, the male dancers also wear charro suits with sombreros however, theirs is more decorated.
Folklorico troops work and practice their performances the whole year to go on Cinco de Mayo tours and event to showcase their dance. Through their movements and choreography, they narrate the story of Cinco de Mayo and express the real meaning of the day to spectators. At some of these events, they even arrange workshops to teach the participants traditional Mexican dance.
Food spreads at parties, food trucks at festivals and local Mexican restaurants will serve their versions of Mexican food. Though not always authentic, they are enjoyed by the people observing the day. The most common foods served are tacos, menudo, gorditas, enchiladas and flautas accompanied by a range of salsas and mole sauces.
In some areas, cook offs are organized or, a community barbeque is held to celebrate the day.
Beer, tequilas, margaritas and micheladas are some of the most popular alcoholic beverages enjoyed by people on the day.
Festivals and parties are decorated with brightly coloured balloons heavily featuring the colours of the Mexican flag. Colourful banners with the cuttings of the Mexican del sol patterns and, paper lanterns are hung everywhere. Maracas, cacti and Mexican flowers made of cloth or paper are other popular decorations.
Table cloths designed using the Mexican serape as inspiration, are spread out on the tables.
Piñatas made of paper mache and decorated with colourful paper are stuffed with toys and candies which are hung from the ceiling or a tree. Children are then blindfolded and are handed a baton to hit the piñata. Once hit, the thing break and falls exposing the goodies inside. The children then rush to get their fair share.
Sometimes charitable organizations take the opportunity to ask for donations for causes such as the development of the Hispanic community, AIDS, etc.
In Mexico, it is only celebrated in Puebla and Mexico City in memory of the battle of Puebla and the Mexican’s victory. It isn’t celebrated as much as one would expect.
Like in the USA, it isn’t a federal holiday and most offices run their operations as usual.
In Puebla, speeches, enactments of the battle, dance and live music are part of the celebrations. A military parade is also held that features people dressed up as Mexican and French army men from the battle of Puebla. These festivities attract more than 20,000 participants and spectators every year to the Boulevard Heroes del 5 de Mayo, in Puebla.
The city also hosts the International Mole festival around this time so the Cinco de Mayo festivities coincide with it. It is interesting to note that, mole poblano is a sauce made of chocolate, chillies and spices was invented in Puebla.
One can never experience a shortage of food in Puebla especially around this time. Local vendors serve traditional and authentic Mexican food to all those visiting the city and the smells are simply phenomenal.
Lastly, people dress themselves up in patriotic attire and accessories to express their national pride as part of the festivities.
Significance in Anthropology and Cultural Impact
The celebration of Cinco de Mayo in the US has invoked two types of reaction. One group of people criticize the stereotyping of the Mexican identity and the appropriation of the Mexican culture. Whereas another group of people appreciate the fact that the Mexican culture is being recognized and that through these events people are made conscious of various ethnicities.
Festivals in America have increased and honour its diverse ethnic population, promoting their identity, culture, awareness and slowly reduce stereotypes. While on the other hand, cultural appropriation by those who aren’t of Mexican origin donning sombrero hats, serapes and fake moustaches seem offensive. This is an ongoing debate that hasn’t reached any conclusion but, solely depends on the intention, level of respect and tolerance regarding the appropriation of symbols from another culture.
Businesses and Stereotypes
Many have also criticised the fact that businesses use the day to promote and sell Hispanic products to the Hispanic community. Which is seemingly disrespectful as they do not care about the meaning of the holiday and are instead more concerned about making profits, benefitting themselves.
Moreover, ever since breweries and alcohol companies have begun sponsoring Cinco de Mayo celebrations, they’ve managed to promote their products so well that people in the States now associate the day with excessive drinking. Another, point of criticism firstly because of the volume of drinks consumed and secondly, because it has created the stereotype that Mexican origin people are heavy drinkers.
This phenomenon has practically Americanised the holiday, transforming it to a drinking holiday. So much so that these drinking parties are sometimes called Cinco de Drinko, which uses the day as an excuse to drink tequila and margaritas all day. Something that isn’t truly a part of Mexican culture.
Puebla takes advantage of the lack of knowledge among people about the holiday and its tour agencies create special Cinco de Mayo tour packages. This allows tourists to enjoy and choose from a variety of celebrations within the city. And, in turn allows Poblanos to educate them about the real meaning of the day.
As more schools in the US introduce teaching cultures of the different ethnic groups in the country, events like Cinco de Mayo are gaining a larger audience. Teachers use this day to teach kids about another culture, the difference between Mexican and Mexican-American culture, and teach history to kids of Mexican heritage far away from their ancestral land.
The following are some of the most common misconceptions about the festival:
- Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of Mexican Independence from Spain. This is false as that is celebrated every year on 16th
- Cinco de Mayo is the same as Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. This is false as this is celebrated on 1st and 2nd November every year.
- Cinco de Mayo is celebrated more in Mexico than in the USA. This is false because as we saw earlier, the day is only celebrated in certain cities in Mexico namely, Puebla and Mexico City whereas, in the US, it is celebrated all around the country.
Cinco de Mayo during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Some organizations are using this opportunity to vaccinate the citizens. For example. In Las Vegas, a vaccination clinic will be set up to vaccinate the people attending and participating in the Cinco de Mayo festivities for a short amount of time. This will be arranged along with food, music, dancing, games, etc.
People are placing their food orders online or by calling their local Mexican restaurants. It has been a difficult time for restaurant owners to keep their businesses afloat so, they feel grateful when the community helps them out by purchasing from these local eateries.
Last year, some of the Folklorico groups even held online workshops on Cinco de Mayo to teach traditional Mexican dance to people. This year, however, the restrictions are lesser as free events are being organized in the evenings with live music, dance performances by Folklorico groups, dance workshops, food trucks, craft workshops with guidelines and safety measures in place. Alternatively people can watch the celebrations live, on social media platforms.
To conclude, in this post we learned that Cinco de Mayo is celebrated to commemorate the victory of the Mexican troops in the Battle of Puebla against the French in 1862 and that in US today it is a day to celebrate, recognize and appreciate Mexican and Mexican-American culture. Finally we, debunked some of the misconceptions around the holiday and learned that the celebrations will continue even during the pandemic.
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Mason, R., 2019. The Battle of Cinco de Mayo: Memory, Myth, and Museum Practices in Mexico. Museum & Society, 17(1), pp. 37-51.
Travel Weekly, 2012. How to Sell the Real Cinco de Mayo, Puebla: Travel Weekly.