The Facts and History of Cinco de Mayo

It's Not Mexican Independence Day

Children in costumes celebrating Cinco de Mayo.

S Pakhrin / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Cinco de Mayo is probably one of the most celebrated and least understood holidays in the world. What is the meaning behind it? How is it celebrated and what does it mean to Mexicans?

It's not a celebration of Mexico's independence as many people think. Rather, it is an important day in Mexican history, and the holiday has true meaning and importance. Let's get the facts straight about Cinco de Mayo.

Cinco de Mayo Meaning and History

Literally meaning "The Fifth of May," Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican Holiday celebrating the Battle of Puebla, which took place on May 5, 1862. It was one of the few Mexican victories during France's attempt to colonize Mexico. By seizing Mexico, France would be able to exploit its natural resources and support the U.S. Confederacy.

Contrary to popular belief, this was not the first time that France attacked Mexico. Back in 1838 and 1839, Mexico and France had fought what was known as the Pastry War. During that conflict, France invaded and occupied the city of Veracruz. 

In 1861, France sent a massive army to invade Mexico once again. As was the case 20 years earlier, the intent was to collect on debts incurred during and after Mexico's war of independence from Spain.

The French army was much larger and better trained and equipped than the Mexicans struggling to defend the road to Mexico City. It rolled through Mexico until it reached Puebla, where the Mexicans made a valiant stand. Despite these challenges, they ended up winning a huge victory. The triumph was short-lived, however. The French army regrouped and continued on, eventually taking Mexico City. 

In 1864, the French brought in Maximilian of Austria. The man who would become Emperor of Mexico was a young European nobleman who barely spoke Spanish. In 1867, he was overthrown and executed by forces loyal to President Benito Juarez.

Despite this turn of events, the euphoria of the unlikely victory at the Battle of Puebla against overwhelming odds is remembered every May 5th.

Cinco de Mayo Led to a Dictator

During the Battle of Puebla, a young officer named Porfirio Diaz distinguished himself. Diaz subsequently rose rapidly through the military ranks as an officer and then as a politician. He even aiding Juarez in the fight against Maximillian.

In 1876, Diaz reached the presidency and did not leave until the Mexican Revolution kicked him out in 1911 after a rule of 35 years. Diaz remains one of the most important presidents in the history of Mexico, and he got his start on the original Cinco de Mayo.

 Isn’t It Mexico’s Independence Day? 

Another common misconception is that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico's Independence Day. In actuality, Mexico celebrates its independence from Spain on September 16. It is a very important holiday in the country and not to be confused with Cinco de Mayo.

It was on September 16, 1810, that Father Miguel Hidalgo took to his pulpit in the village church of the town of Dolores. He invited his flock to take up arms and join him in overthrowing Spanish tyranny. This famous speech would be celebrated as the Grito de Dolores, or "The Cry of Dolores," from then on.

How Big of a Deal Is Cinco de Mayo?

Cinco de Mayo is a big deal in Puebla, where the famous battle took place. However, it really isn't as important as most people think. Independence Day on September 16 has much more significance in Mexico.

For some reason, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated more in the United States — by Mexicans and Americans alike — than it is in Mexico. There is one theory for why this is true.

At one time, Cinco de Mayo was widely celebrated in all of Mexico and by Mexicans living in former Mexican territories, such as Texas and California. After a while, it was ignored in Mexico but the celebrations continued north of the border where people never got out of the habit of remembering the famous battle.

It's interesting to note that the largest Cinco de Mayo party takes place in Los Angeles, California. Every year, the people of Los Angeles celebrate “Festival de Fiesta Broadway” on May 5th (or on the closest Sunday). It’s a large, raucous party with parades, food, dancing, music, and more. Hundreds of thousands attend annually. It’s even bigger than the festivities in Puebla.

Cinco de Mayo Celebration

In Puebla and in many U.S. cities with large Mexican populations, there are parades, dancing, and festivals. Traditional Mexican food is served or sold. Mariachi bands fill town squares and a lot of Dos Equis and Corona beers are served.

It’s a fun holiday, really more about celebrating the Mexican way of life than about remembering a battle which happened over 150 years ago. It is sometimes referred to as a “Mexican St. Patrick’s Day.”

In the U.S., schoolchildren do units on the holiday, decorate their classrooms, and try their hand at cooking some basic Mexican foods. All over the world, Mexican restaurants bring in Mariachi bands and offer specials for what’s almost certain to be a packed house.​

Cinco de Mayo is important because it's a celebration of Indigenous Mexican people against European colonizers. Unfortunately, this holiday has been commercialized by the U.S. and its anti-colonial meaning has been ignored. In America, the holiday has also been used to highlight racist caricatures about Mexican people.

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Minster, Christopher. "The Facts and History of Cinco de Mayo." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). The Facts and History of Cinco de Mayo. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The Facts and History of Cinco de Mayo." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).