What Americans Need to Know About Cinco de Mayo

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Cinco de Mayo is incredibly popular in the US, although many Americans have some pretty serious misconceptions about its origins and meaning. No, it does not commemorate Mexico’s independence from Spain. (That’s marked on September 16.)

It’s not even a big event in Mexico.

The May 5 holiday honors the Battle of Puebla when outnumbered Mexican forces defeated the troops of French Emperor Napoleon III in 1862 during the Second Franco-Mexican War. hit back.

How did a clash south of the border in the US turn into such a big day of partying? Read on to find out.

What does Cinco de Mayo represent?

Mexico declared its independence in 1821. By 1861, however, the financially strapped country had defaulted on debt payments to several European nations. France’s Napoleon III, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, decided to use the outstanding debt as an excuse to invade and expand his overseas empire.

A painting of Napoleon III by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

A portrait of Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon Bonaparte) by the painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

DEA/G. Dagli Orti/De Agostini via Getty Images

Napoleon’s troops stormed Veracruz and exiled Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president. Emboldened by their early victory, on May 5, 1862, French forces under General Charles de Lorencez attacked Puebla de Los Angeles, about 80 miles outside of Mexico City.

Juarez sent a ragtag army of Mexicans and Zapotec Indians to defend the city under the banner of General Ignacio Zaragoza. The battle lasted from sunrise to sunset and although outnumbered almost 2-to-1, Zaragoza’s troops repulsed Lorencez’s troops.

The battle was not a decisive victory – in fact, the French recaptured Puebla a year later – but many Mexicans saw it as a symbol of throwing off the shackles of colonialism and oppression. Four days later, on May 9, 1862, Juárez declared Cinco de Mayo a national holiday.

Emperor Maximilian of Mexico

Emperor Maximilian of Mexico was executed in 1867.

bedman

French troops withdrew completely from Mexico in 1867, and Maximilian I, the Austrian archduke Napoleon who was installed as the country’s emperor, was eventually captured and executed.

In honor of the Mexican victory, Puebla de Los Angeles was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza and Cinco de Mayo was declared a national holiday.

Why is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in the USA?

While the French and Mexicans fought, the US became embroiled in the American Civil War. Napoleon III had allied with the Confederacy and planned to supply Southern states with weapons in exchange for cotton, which was blocked by the Union.

The loss at Puebla and the resources Napoleon expended in Mexico helped derail his strategy of moving further north and strengthening the Confederacy.

US citizens of Mexican descent overwhelmingly supported the union, according to David E. Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the UCLA School of Medicine. They voted for Abraham Lincoln, and many served in the Union Army, Navy, and Cavalry.

Statute of Ignacio Zaragoza

A memorial to Ignacio Zaragoza, hero of the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, in Puebla de Zaragoza, Mexico.

DeAgostini/Getty Images

News of the crucial victory in Puebla “electrified Latinos in California, Nevada and Oregon to redouble their efforts in defense of liberty, equality and democracy in both the United States and Mexico,” Hayes-Bautista told CNET.

For his book El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, he traced newspapers from the period showing Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Los Angeles and other parts of the West taking place almost immediately after the Battle of Puebla ended.

“Every Cinco de Mayo, Latinos would march through the streets of cities, towns and mining camps to tell the world where they stood on issues surrounding the American Civil War and the French intervention in Mexico,” Hayes-Bautista said.

By 1910, Mexican-American veterans of the American Civil War were dying out, and in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, a new wave of immigrants arrived in California.

Two young Chicano men ride on the hood of a car

Two men ride on the hood of a car during a National Chicano Moratorium Committee march in Los Angeles in 1970.

David Fenton/Getty Images

“These newcomers noticed the Cinco de Mayo celebrations here in California and started joining in,” Hayes-Bautista said. But they’ve repurposed the celebrations with songs, music and images of the Mexican Revolution, he said.

In the 1960s, leaders of the Chicano movement re-transformed Cinco de Mayo as a symbol of cultural pride and resilience as they championed farm worker rights, educational and economic opportunities, and other social and political causes.

“The story of David versus Goliath adequately reflected the struggle for civil rights,” Kirby Farah, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California, wrote for The Conversation.

The commercialization of Cinco de Mayo

For generations, Cinco de Mayo was not well known in the United States outside of the Mexican-American and Central American immigrant communities. Then, in the 1980s, as Latinos became a larger economic force in the country, beer companies saw an opportunity. In 1989, the Gambrinus Group, the Texan importers of Corona and Negra Modelo, launched an advertising campaign encouraging Mexican Americans to drink Mexican beer on holidays.

Marketing soon expanded to reach Americans of all backgrounds, and in 1993 Gambrinus marketing director Ron Christesson told Modern Brewery Age magazine that Cinco de Mayo was “growing into one of the beer industry’s biggest promotions”.

During this time, Hayes-Bautista said, Cinco de Mayo “became highly commercialized into ‘drinko de mayo’.”

Man in sombrero and serape with silly glasses

In the US, beverage companies have focused on Cinco de Mayo as a day to drink Mexican beer and margaritas.

Cavan images

According to market research firm Nielsen, Americans spent more than $600 million on beer at Cinco de Mayo in 2013. That’s more than during the Super Bowl, July 4th, or St. Patrick’s Day that year.

“Corona is the first thing customers think of when they think of Cinco de Mayo,” said Gambrinus marketing director Don Mann in 2006.

This year, Corona is sponsoring a “Corona de Cinco” campaign on its website that includes Old El Paso recipes and a chance to win $25 Uber gift cards.

Liquor delivery app Drizly is pushing tequila on its homepage, encouraging customers to “juicy your Cinco” with premium tequilas and mezcals. (Americans also consumed about 8.7 million gallons of tequila as of May 5, Loop Insights reported.)

Here’s how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo

Hayes-Bautista wants to move Cinco de Mayo away from liquor companies and chain restaurants and back into the hands of the community.

“A fiesta is fine, but we should remember why we’re celebrating,” he said. “While the Fourth of July has been heavily commercialized, the one thing we remember most is that the day has something to do with the founding of the United States of America and the Declaration of Independence.”

Gustavo Rivas-Solis is Vice President at Enroute Communications and has represented the Mexican tourism industry for more than 20 years.

Cinco de Mayo “started in the US as a way for a minority to show their pride — like St. Patrick’s Day,” he told CNET. “And like St. Patrick’s Day, it was promoted by marketing companies. I think they did a good job.”

Mexican dancers at the White House for Cinco de Mayo

Mexican dancers in the White House Rose Garden for a Cinco de Mayo celebration on May 5, 2010.

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Rivas-Solis said he believes there’s nothing wrong with embracing the day’s celebrations, as long as they’re “heartfelt and not just fun”.

“Mexicans like to party,” he said. “There is a way to make the day more cultural and political, but we always like to celebrate.”

He suggests Americans who want to honor the Battle of Cinco de Mayo learn about its origins and other aspects of Mexican culture.

“When you drink tequila, learn about the centuries-old culture behind it, learn about Jalisco. If you’re wearing a sombrero, learn where it’s from.”

Cinco de Mayo reenactment in Puebla, Mexico

A 2001 re-enactment of the battle between the French and Mexicans in Puebla on May 5, 1862.

Susana González/Newsmaker

Rivas-Solis also makes an offer to visit Mexico and explore its history and culture first hand.

“San Miguel de Allende is the cradle of Mexican independence and has an incredible Day of the Dead celebration,” said Rivas-Solis. “In Mexico City you have Chapultepec Castle, which Emperor Maximilian had built.”

Mole poblano with chicken

Mole Poblano was invented in Puebla.

Eye omnipresent/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Puebla itself is beautiful, he added, with many colonial-era sights still standing. And, of course, Puebla still honors Cinco de Mayo — with historical re-enactments, mariachi music, and a festival dedicated to mole poblano, a savory chilli-chocolate sauce that has become synonymous with the region.

“That’s where the mole came from,” said Rivas-Solis. “The gastronomy is amazing. And there are these incredible fields of flowers – the flowers you see on the Day of the Dead are from Puebla.”

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