Arts & Culture

Cinco de Mayo: How a Small Mexican Battle Became a Major U.S. Holiday

Often confused with Mexican Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo is an important day in the country’s history, but the party celebrating the date in the United States is much bigger than any observance south of the border.

By Nicole Dudenhoefer '17 |
May 4, 2018

mexican flag on a flagpole waving in the wind with a blue sky in the background

Although Cinco de Mayo is not celebrated in most of Mexico, the day represents the strength and willpower of the country's people during an important battle.

Cinco de Mayo is one of the biggest celebrations in the United States, with estimates for beer sales on the holiday outweighing even the Super Bowl.

While many people think May 5 is the Mexican Day of Independence, the date actually marks the country’s small, but significant battle against the French in Mexico’s city of Puebla. Today, most of Mexico doesn’t even celebrate the holiday, but the Battle of Puebla, which was the first battle the French lost in 50 years, still carries an important meaning for Mexicans.

Why Cinco de Mayo is Important

In 1861, Mexico’s president, Benito Juarez, refused to pay off debts with foreign nations to focus on the country’s failing infrastructure. As retaliation, French troops were sent to take control of Mexico in 1862.

“Some of the [Mexican troops] were farmers that were just fighting with agricultural tools, like machetes…so we have a lot of pride that Mexicans won.”

The French were successful in their first battle in Campeche, however Mexico surprisingly delivered a crushing defeat to their enemies during the second battle at Puebla on May 5, 1862. With only 4,000 troops, Mexico won the fight against a heavily armed group of 8,000 foreign invaders.

“Some of the [Mexican troops] were farmers that were just fighting with agricultural tools, like machetes,” says Esmeralda Duarte, a visiting lecturer in UCF’s modern languages and literatures department, who lived in Mexico from 5 to 16 years old. “The French had an elite army [that was] very well-trained, very well-equipped and had won a lot of victories, so we have a lot of pride that Mexicans won.”

Mexico’s Independence Day occurred years earlier on Sept. 16, 1810, when Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo delivered the “Cry of Dolores,” which called for the revolt against 300 years of Spanish rule, thus starting the 11-year Mexican War of Independence.

Celebrations in Mexico and the United States

Puebla is the only city in Mexico that largely celebrates Cinco de Mayo, so how did the holiday become so popular in the United States? In recent years, beer companies have started large marketing campaigns to encourage more people to drink their products as a way to celebrate the day.

“Beer companies have been marketing on this holiday, instead of Mexico’s Independence Day, because it is a good month. It’s sunny, it’s spring, so it is festive.”

“Beer companies have been marketing on this holiday, instead of Mexico’s Independence Day, because it is a good month,” says Duarte. “It’s sunny, it’s spring, so it is festive. In September, it’s cold,so it’s not a very good month.”

However, on Sept. 16 schools and businesses are closed as the entire country comes together to celebrate Mexico’s independence with parades, dancing, food and drinks. One major part of the celebration is “El Grito de Lares,” during which the nation’s president rings a bell, recites the names of war heroes and expresses shouts of patriotism, says UCF sophomore Zulema Treviño, who is studying Spanish and moved to the United States in 2015 after living her whole life in Mexico.

Mexican Customs for Celebrating

While there is really no typical way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in Mexico, Treviño says these are some customs to follow to appropriately take part in the holiday.

What to Do: Spend time learning Spanish and more about the history of Mexico, and be sure to spread the true history behind the holiday with others. On Independence Day,celebrations include spending time with family and friends, eating, drinking and dancing in the streets.

What to Wear: Wear red, white and green to represent the colors on the Mexican flag, however by no means should you wear any items with the actual flag on them since it’s illegal to do so in Mexico. However, items with just the eagle emblem from the flag are okay to wear.

“When I moved [to the U.S.], I started working in a Mexican restaurant and Cinco de Mayo was absolutely crazy! [To me] it could be on any other day, but it’s fun that Americans really celebrate.”

What to Eat: Tacos are the most common Mexican dish, however truly authentic ones are only served on flour or corn tortillas with chicken or beef and always include tomato, jalapeno and onion. Hard shells and cheddarcheese are never used in traditional tacos, so try to avoid these options.

Mole, the national dish of Mexico, is a sauce made from chilis, sautéed garlic and onions, ground nuts and spices such as black pepper, cinnamon and cumin. Chocolate is usually added to darker versions as well.

Elote, corn on the cob slathered in crema, Cotija cheese, lime and chili powder, is often served during celebrations to make it easier for festival-goers to eat while dancing.

For dessert, churros are popular for festivities because they’re portable like elote. The treat is made from a fried dough coated in cinnamon and sugar.

What to Drink: Mexican beers such as Dos Equis, Tecate and Indio. You can also enjoy a michelada, which is a bright, refreshing light beer beverage that mixes lime juice, hot sauce and savory items such as Worcestershire sauce and salt.