Cinco de Mayo

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

A U.S. celebration of Mexican Heritage

Cinco de Mayo (Spanish for the Fifth of May) began with a proclamation from President Benito Juárez of Mexico, but ever since it's been a mostly American holiday. How did a Mexican battle turn into an American celebration? To answer that, we need to start at the beginning.

The History

In the 1860s, Napoleon III waged war against Mexico to remove the democratic government of President Benito Juárez. Napoleon wanted to create a new empire in Mexico that be friendly to France (and give them access to silver and other valuable materials). The timing of the American Civil War also meant that the United States would be unable to support the Mexicans.

The Battle of Puebla, fought on May 5, 1862, was a mostly symbolic victory. A small Mexican army under General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated a much larger and better-equipped French army. The victory delayed French military advances in the country, and provided a major morale boost for pro-democracy forces. The French were successful in conquering the capital and crowning an emperor, but President Juárez and his allies regained control of Mexico by 1867.

President Juárez declared that May 5 should be a holiday to remember the victory at Puebla. Its acknowledgement in Mexico is rather regional, with the most recognition around Puebla. This should not be mistaken with Mexican Independence Day, which celebrates independence from Spain on September 16 and is a major affair.

What does the U.S. have to do with it?

American celebration of Cinco de Mayo is almost as old as its recognition in Mexico, believe it or not. According to the University of California, Los Angeles, Mexican-Americans in California heard about the incredible victory and began celebrating as early as 1863. After that it remained a regular—if local—holiday in California for decades. 

With the rise of the Chicano movement in the 1960s (a Mexican-American movement for civil rights and empowerment), Cinco de Mayo was brought from California and spread through the country. Over time Cinco de Mayo morphed into a general celebration of Mexican heritage. It became fairly widespread and by the 1980s businesses were looking to get involved in the festivities.

In 2005 Congress recognized Cinco de Mayo as a national holiday:

Whereas Cinco de Mayo also serves as a reminder of the close spiritual and economic ties between the people of Mexico and the people of the United States, and is especially important for the people of the southwestern States where millions of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans make their homes;

Whereas in a larger sense Cinco de Mayo symbolizes the right of a free people to self-determination, just as Benito Juarez once said, "El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz'' (The respect of other people's rights is peace); and

Whereas many people celebrate during the entire week in which Cinco de Mayo falls: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That Congress recognizes the historical struggle for independence and freedom of the Mexican people and requests the President to issue a proclamation recognizing that struggle and calling upon the people of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate ceremonies and activities.

In plain English, Americans should celebrate Cinco de Mayo because: 

  • Mexico and the United States are close neighbors,
  • Mexican heritage is very important to a lot of Americans,
  • And the battle for democracy on Cinco de Mayo represents important values we share with Mexico.

Sombreros and Maracas

As the holiday became more popular, companies began pushing sales of sombreros, and other Mexican-identified products. This commercial fiesta atmosphere led to the holiday being widely celebrated among the general American public, even those with no ties to the Mexican community. Many feel that this commercialization cheapens the holiday; at worst, it can be seen as belittling Mexican(-American) culture by reducing it to simple items and stereotypes. 

All that serious stuff aside, it's perfectly all right to have fun on Cinco de Mayo. You can eat Mexican food and go to a Mexican folk dance festival, and you can listen to Mexican music even if you don't speak Spanish. The important thing is that you take the time to reflect on the many meaningful accomplishments of the Mexican people, and to show respect for the Mexican-American people in your community. 

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