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Why Americans Celebrate Cinco de Mayo

At first glance, it seems like Americans have kind of taken a Mexican holiday as our own. Isn't Cinco de Mayo a celebration of Mexican independence? Uh no. It's actually not! In fact, the holiday is a lot bigger in the States than South of the Border.

So when is Mexican Independence Day?

Lots of people mistakingly believe that Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of Mexico's independence (similar to the 4th of July in the US), but that's not true. Mexico's Independence Day is September 16 when in 1810 a Catholic priest made the first laid claim to independence from Spain.

Why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo then?

Cinco de Mayo celebrates a David-Goliath type single battle in 1862 when the Mexican army defeated France at the Battle of Puebla. The French had a few regrets about the land lost during the Louisiana purchase so Napoleon wanted to establish a French outpost in Mexico. As you can imagine, the Mexican army was considered the big underdog so the defeat of French forces led by Napoleon III was a huge boost to the Mexican morale. Of course, celebrations were short-lived as the French did end up controlling the country for about five years. Still, the battle came to represent a huge symbolic victory for Mexico.

The Battle of Puebla

Historical significance to the US

Emperor Maximilian wanted to turn the Puebla area into a base that would help the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. Some historians have argued that had he succeeded, the Civil War might have gone a very different way. But this isn't why Americans celebrate the holiday. It's just a little fun fact that may have actually played a huge role in American history.

Emperor Maximilian and Charlotte of Habsburg department for Mexico by Cesare dell'Acqua

Is it celebrated in Mexico?

Cinco de Mayo is actually a much bigger deal in the US than in Mexico, where most people don't even celebrate the holiday. At one point, Mexicans did recognize Cinco de Mayo and the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla was even declared a national holiday referred to as “Battle of Puebla Day” or “Battle of Cinco de Mayo” by President Benito Juárez on May 9, 1862. However, it's no longer considered a national holiday in Mexico. To catch any celebrations in Mexico, you'd have to head to Puebla where they still hold parades and battle re-enactments.

US Celebrations

The whole holiday kicked off in the States In 1863 when Mexican miners in California broke into celebration when they received news that people were resisting French occupancy back home. Now, the largest Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the world are in LA and Texas has some pretty big parties, too.

Los Angeles celebrations Image courtesy: The Hollywood Home

The holiday started to be celebrated more widely in the US after President Roosevelt created the “Good Neighbor Policy” in 1933 to improve relations with Latin American countries. In the 1960's and 1970's, the day began closely tied with the Chicano Rights movement, thanks to Mexican-American activists in California.

Leave it to the beer companies to take the holiday mainstream in the United States. 1980s ad campaigns by beer importers like Modelo and Corona really pushed the party aspect of the holiday. In 2005, Congress issued a resolution recognizing the historical significance of Cinco de Mayo and George W Bush made a proclamation for the holiday to be celebrated across the nation. So yes, Cinco de Mayo is an official holiday in the US, but not Mexico.

Food, Music and Clothes

Mole poblano is considered to be the official dish of the holiday because it is traditionally eaten in the town of Puebla. It's a sauce containing chili pepper, chocolate, and spices. If you've ever been to a Cinco de Mayo parade or any other Mexican cultural celebration, you've probably seen dancers wearing gorgeous colorful dresses. They're often called "puebla dresses." You'll probably also some mariachi music. These bands of musicians started back in 19th century when they would travel from town to town singing songs of revolutionary heroes and enemies, and carrying news from one place to another.


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