¡Oye! Do You Know What Cinco De Mayo Is Really About?

If you live in the United States, there’s a good chance that you’re familiar with Cinco de Mayo. You may even know that it means the “fifth of May,” and that it’s a holiday celebrating an important event in Mexican history.

There’s also a good chance that you’re familiar with how Mexico is often tokenized on this day with, well, lots of beer and sombrero wearing. Cinco de Mayo is so much more than this depiction, however. Read on for the history of the date and its traditions (and to learn a little relevant Spanish while you’re at it).

What is Cinco de Mayo?

Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday that commemorates the Battle of Puebla fought between Mexico and France during the Second French Intervention. The battle happened on May 5, 1862, but the origin of the conflict started a year earlier when Spain, France, and Britain signed an agreement to recover unpaid debts from Mexico. Spain and Britain withdrew their troops when France escalated the conflict under Emperor Napoleon III, who went so far as to declare the archduke of Austria, Maximilian of Habsburg, as Emperor of Mexico.

On the date of the Battle of Puebla, the Mexican army, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, defeated the French despite the fact that the Mexican troops were both outnumbered and more poorly outfitted for war. News of the victory spread, and celebrating the victory became a way to show Mexican resistance and pride.

The Battle of Puebla was just one part of a much longer war, though. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t even a turning point for victory. The war continued for another five years and didn’t end until French troops were withdrawn in 1866 and 1867, and Maximilian was executed. Celebrating the Battle of Puebla on Cinco de Mayo, however, lived on as an expression of Mexican pride.

Don’t battle your memory on this topic, just visit our article that goes into more depth and detail on the history and relevance of Cinco de Mayo.

When is Cinco de Mayo?

It only takes a little knowledge of Spanish to know when Cinco de Mayo is every year, because it’s right there in the name: cinco (five, or in this case, fifth) de Mayo (of May). This was the date of the Battle of Puebla, which started and ended in a Mexican victory over French forces on May 5, 1862.

Cinco de Mayo vs. Mexican Independence Day

Some people, especially white non-Mexican people in the US, confuse the festivities of Cinco de Mayo with Mexican Independence Day. The two are completely separate events, however, and mixing the two up, from a US perspective, could be like mixing up the July 4, 1776 declaration of independence in the US with the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

Mexican Independence Day (Día de la Independencia) is celebrated on September 16. It commemorates the priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s Grito de Dolores, which is when he effectively declared war against the Spanish colonial government in 1810. Followers of “the father of Mexican independence” assembled and marched to Mexico City on that day. This was the start of what would be an 11-year war for Mexican independence from Spain’s 300-year rule—and it happened more than 50 years before the Battle of Puebla.

How is Cinco de Mayo celebrated?

Cinco de Mayo centers on a historical moment in Mexican history, but it has long been celebrated in the US, too. Mexican-Americans in Western parts of the US took note of the battle in solidarity with Mexico as early as 1863. Celebrations north of the Mexican border spread from communities with a large Mexican-American population to the rest of the US in the mid-1900s.

Today, it’s a widespread holiday in the US, and problematic Cinco de Mayo celebrations are held every year by people with no ties to Mexico who aren’t aware of the date’s history and traditions. Some restaurants, bars, and other businesses call the date “Cinco de drinko” and use it as an excuse to overindulge on Mexican beer and tacos, while others lean heavily on stereotypes by decorating with things like sombreros. These types of celebrations are somewhat comparable to the green beers and Irish stereotypes that proliferate on St. Patrick’s Day.

That’s not the case for everyone, however. For some Mexican-Americans, Cinco de Mayo is a time to celebrate their Mexican heritage and Mexican culture. This can be through parades and parties, or through events that highlight Mexican pride and history.

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is noted to some extent in Mexico City, but it’s not as widespread in the country as it is even in the US. The day is mostly celebrated in the state of Puebla where the original battle took place. Revelers partake in parades, music, food, and drinks in Puebla to note the date and historical moment.

Spanish words to know this Cinco de Mayo

You’re likely familiar with cervezas (beers) and foods like tacos, enchiladas, burritos, and tamales. For a better understanding of the holiday, it may be helpful to know some terms and phrases related to Cinco de Mayo’s history and traditions.

  • Baile folklórico: A traditional folk dance.
  • Mariachi: A folk band of five or more musicians. Classic instruments include the guitar, violin, trumpet, and a vihuela, which is a type of guitar. Mariachi bands have played songs that tell the traditional stories of Mexico for hundreds of years.
  • Charro: A Mexican horseman or cowboy, typically one wearing an elaborate outfit, often with silver decorations, of tight trousers, ruffled shirt, short jacket, and sombrero. Mariachi bands typically dress this way.
  • El Día de la Batalla de Puebla: Literally, “The day of the Battle of Puebla.”
  • La guerra: War.
  • La bandera: The flag. The Mexican flag is la bandera Mexicana.
  • Mil ochocientos sesenta y dos: 1862, the year of the Battle of Puebla.
  • Castanetas: Hand-held percussion instruments made of two pieces of wood.

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Maybe on this Cinco de Mayo, you can learn about the knotty relationship between the terms "Hispanic" and "Latino."

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