The True Meaning of Cinco de Mayo

Published: May 5, 2017

Over time, the Cinco de Mayo holiday has been adapted to also be celebrated in American culture. For American youth, the holiday is often celebrated in the classroom with piñatas and Mexican-influenced snacks. In adulthood, Americans typically spend Cinco de Mayo in the pub, dressed up in ponchos and sombreros while drinking excessive amounts of tequila.

Unfortunately, Cinco de Mayo has become commercialized in America with faulty reasons for celebration, and the importance of the holiday to Mexican culture has been misconstrued. Many are surprised to learn that while Cinco de Mayo is reason for extravagant celebration in America, the holiday is merely recognized throughout Mexico. This is because Cinco de Mayo is often confused for Mexico’s Independence Day. In reality, Mexico commemorates its independence on September 16, while Cinco de Mayo, which is Spanish for “Fifth of May,” is actually a celebration of Mexico’s epic victory over France in the Battle of Puebla.


La Historia: Día de la Independencia & Cinco de Mayo

(The history: Independence Day & Fifth of May)

Día de la Independencia

While the event does not mark the true day of Mexico’s independence, the country celebrates Independence Day in recognition of the “Cry of Dolores.” Issued on September 16, 1810, the Cry of Dolores was a public speech made by Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, calling for a revolution against more than 300 years of land redistribution and racial persecution placed on Mexicans under Spanish rule.

The Mexicans prepared for battle and nearly defeated Spain and the Royalists at Calderón. Hidalgo was captured and executed following the battle, but populist Mexican leaders continued to revolt.

One decade later, the Royalists ironically became allies to Mexico and assisted in negotiating the Plan of Iguala. Under this provision, Mexico became an independent constitutional monarchy – but with limitations. Mexican Indians continued to be discriminated against, with lesser rights than Mexicans of Spanish descent.

On August 24, 1821, the Treaty of Córdoba announced Mexico as a truly independent constitutional monarchy.

The events leading to Cinco de Mayo would not transpire for another 40 years.

Cinco de Mayo

Although Mexico had gained its constitutional independence so many years earlier, by 1861, the country was a financial mess, owing massive debts to the French, British and Spanish governments. In response, the countries sent forces to Mexico to demand repayment of debts. Mexico was able to negotiate with Britain and Spain, and the crews retreated back to their respective countries. However, the French attempted to abuse the situation as an opportunity to reclaim portions of Mexico as part of their empire.

Napoleon III had a forceful agenda when the French touched Mexican shores in late 1861, with more than 6,000 soldiers poised to attack the small town of Puebla de Los Angeles. To combat the threat, Mexican president Benito Juárez assembled an inexperienced militia of 2,000 loyal civilians to defend Puebla.

Lacking weapons and equipment, Mexican resources were severely limited, in comparison to France’s heavy artilleries. However, through grit and patriotism, the Mexican army was able to fight from dawn to dusk on May 5, 1861. When the smoke cleared, the Mexican army had lost only 100 soldiers, in comparison to the deaths of nearly 500 French soldiers.

While the Battle of Puebla was not the end of French pressures in Mexico, it was certainly a symbol of hopefor the Mexican people which revitalized an unwavering resistance against European rule. By 1867, the United States had replenished resources exhausted during the Civil War and was able to provide support in Mexico, forcing the French to retreat. To send a final message to the French pronouncing Mexico’s independence, Mexican forces captured former French-appointed emperor of Mexico, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, and executed him.

Other Common Misconceptions

Many Americans also confuse the meaning of Cinco de Mayo as a celebration for Mexican culture and the country’s historical struggle as a social minority. This misinterpretation of the day’s meaning was derived from the Chicano activist movement in the United States in the 1960s, when awareness was raised for Mexican heritage and the holiday by Mexican-Americans. The activists were especially influenced by Mexico’s ability to revolt against the oppressions of European rule, which is why Cinco de Mayo particularly resonated with their movement.


Celebrating Cinco de Mayo: Mexico

In Mexico, the Cinco de Mayo holiday is primarily observed in the Mexican state of Puebla. Traditions include parades, recreations of the Battle of Puebla, and other celebratory festivities. For most Mexicans, however, the Fifth of May is a day just like any other – it is not a federal holiday, and businesses remain open during regular hours.


Celebrating Cinco de Mayo: Rest of World

In the United States, England, Germany, and other parts of the world, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with parades, parties, mariachi music, Mexican folk dancing, and traditional Mexican cuisine. Some of the largest Cinco de Mayo festivals in the world are hosted in the United States – namely, in Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

Theories suggest that the reason Cinco de Mayo was able to latch on to global culture is because, much like St. Patrick’s Day or Oktoberfest, it is reason to celebrate the cultures of those around the world. In turn, consumer behaviors, groupthink, and successful marketing have allowed Cinco de Mayo to explode throughout the globe, creating a prosperous environment for businesses to provide resources for the holiday’s celebrations. From alcoholic beverages to taco preparations, the food and beverage industry has exposed and capitalized its niche in supporting this annual, popularized celebration.

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