10 Things You Didn’t Know About Cinco De Mayo
With the celebration of Cinco De Mayo coming up, we thought we'd shed some light on this festive holiday. While it’s been widely celebrated throughout the United States as a way to honor the heritage and ancestry of Latino communities and culture, it’s also one of the most misconceived holidays on the calendar.
In fact, the style and substance of the celebration has been sharply criticized for using the culture and history to commercialize and almost cloud the holiday’s true origins. Get the real story on Cinco De Mayo below.
1. It’s not a big holiday in Mexico
Cinco de Mayo might have deep roots in Mexico’s history, but it’s actually not as big of a celebration as it is in the United States. The holiday is still recognized in parts of the country, but it’s really just another day for its residents and not an excuse to eat, drink and be merry. In fact, the biggest celebrations in Mexico are relatively limited to the country’s capital Mexico City and the town of Puebla that stands as the foundation for the holiday.
2. Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexico’s Independence Day
It’s also been erroneously said that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Fourth of July. Even though it recognizes an important victory in the country’s strive for freedom, it is not the traditional day of independence for Mexico. That honor is called 'El Grito de la Independencia' and it’s normally celebrated on Sept. 16th. The holiday remembers the beginning of Mexico’s War of Independence in 1810 against the Spanish colonial government.
3. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla
The May 5th that the holiday’s name refers to dates back to 1862 as Mexico tried to defend itself from an invasion by the French at the order of Napoleon III who hoped to take over the region to expand European free trade and mine the nation's silver deposits. The Battle of Puebla marked a decisive victory against the occupying army. French forces attempted to take Puebla but they underestimated the local army led by General Ignacio Seguin Zaragoza who were able to soundly defeat them, striking an embarrassing blow to the French invasion. This year's Cinco de Mayo will mark the 150th anniversary of the famous battle.
4. The French retook Puebla the following Spring
Unfortunately, Mexico's victory in Puebla did not deter the French army from ending their invasion. The following spring, they returned to Puebla and decimated the town, forcing their general to issue a surrender leading to the capture of 17,000 troops and officers.
5. Mexico’s win in Puebla could have changed the American Civil War
One of the reasons that Americans in general celebrate Cinco de Mayo whether they realize it or not is because the Battle of Puebla actually served as a key choke point that, if lost, could have offered a great deal of aid to the Confederate armies fighting the Union in the American Civil War. Another part of Napoleon III’s reasons for taking over Mexico was so he could provide aid to the Confederate Army and expand his empire across Mexico and into the US. Puebla delayed those plans.
6. Mexico wouldn’t gain their independence for five more years
The Battle of Puebla may have been a decisive victory for Mexico, but the French only lost the battle. The French eventually won the region after a bloody insurrection. French troops finally marched on Mexico City shortly after capturing Puebla and Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph and his wife Belgian Princess Charlotte were installed as Mexico's emperors. President Benito Juarez, who refused to surrender when the French overtook Mexico City, led the overthrow of Maximilian and had him executed by firing squad in 1867.
7. The holiday's original intention was to reach out to Latino communities and culture
Even though historians have been able to trace some of the holiday’s earliest celebrations of Cinco de Mayo to just before the turn of the century, it began to gain steam around the 1950s and 60s. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” was enacted to improve relations and communication with Latin American countries and communities. Under this policy, Cinco de Mayo was eventually recognized as a national holiday.
8. Its commercialization goes back farther than you think
Of course, by the time the holiday reached into the '70s and '80s, corporations co-opted the holiday as a hook to sell alcohol for Cinco de Mayo parties. But that wasn’t the first time a Cinco de Mayo celebration was used to sell stuff. Some of the earliest celebrants in the late 1940s in Corona, CA, found themselves short on funds for the annual fiesta. So the Chamber of Commerce picked up a sponsor that wanted to steer the celebration away from the traditional Cinco de Mayo festival and towards a “Lemon Fiesta” theme to help people recognize “the importance of the lemon industry.” Mexican American leaders expressed vocal opposition to the new sponsored celebration.
9. It is celebrated outside the US and Mexico with one notable exception
Thanks to the pop culture spread of the not-so-traditional Cinco de Mayo holiday, other countries have picked it up mostly as a way to get people to the bars for a few bottles of Dos Equis. Countries such as Canada, Malta, Australia and the Cayman Islands have their own small Cinco de Mayo celebrations. Vancouver offers one of the more unique celebrations with an annual Cinco de May “skydiving boogie” that offers aerial acrobatics and an air show. Interestingly, Spain does not celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Instead, they celebrate Dos de Mayo (on May 2nd, for you non-Spanish majors out there) to commemorate another key defeat against French forces in 1808.
10. The margarita wasn’t invented until well after the first Cinco de Mayo
Of course, we don’t we want to be a buzzkill. So don’t let any of this stop you from responsibly enjoying a margarita or two on May 5th at a neighbor’s backyard party. However, even this alcoholic staple isn’t technically a Cinco de Mayo tradition. The origin story of the margarita depends on who is telling it, but all of the stories date far after the Battle of Puebla. The earliest version dates back to 1938 in Tijuana where local restauranteur Carlos “Danny” Herrera dreamed up the drink for an aspiring actress who was allergic to every spirit in the bar except tequila but didn’t want to drink it straight.
Others claim that socialite Margarita Sames of Dallas, TX, made the first margarita during a vacation with friends in Acapulco. One of her friends, Tommy Hilton, liked it so much that he put the drink on the bar menu in his hotels. Some dispute this story as an urban legend since three years earlier, Jose Cuervo importer Anthony Dias Blue marketed the drink with the tagline “Margarita: it’s more than a girl’s name.” So you likely have multiple people to thank for your hangover on May 6th.