What Is Cinco de Mayo and Why Celebrate?

Cinco de MayoFor many Americans, Cinco de Mayo means mariachi music, guacamole, tequila shots, fajitas, tacos, margaritas, Mexican flags and beer. It is the 5th of May and America is ready for a mid-week fiesta so what better way than to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. In the spirit of celebration, many rely mostly on the commercialization without giving thought to its original significance.

Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday, but local tributes reportedly pale in comparison to the lofty celebrations in the United States. In the U.S. many restaurants have specials, there are endless promotions leading up to the holiday and a high-volume of advertising. Truth is, Cinco de Mayo is a holiday that deserves more respect than it is often attributed.

Contrary to popular belief, the holiday is not a Mexican Independence Day, which is always September 16th, and dates back more than 50 years before Cinco de Mayo existed. This particular holiday marks the date of a Mexican military victory over France. It can even been viewed as a metaphor for the Hispanic experience.

May 5, 1862 marks the victory after hundreds of Mexican soldiers conquered the French army, which included a much larger number of soldiers, in the Battle of Puebla. The French army, at this time, was considered one of the best in the world. Although Mexico ultimately lost the war, the Battle of Puebla served as a momentous confidence booster for Mexicans.

Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday, but many might be surprised to learn that it is more widely celebrated in the United States than its home of origin. The holiday went mainstream once corporations discovered Cinco de Mayo as a way to embrace, or market to, Latino consumers.  In the mid-1800s, the observance of the holiday in the U.S. is believed to have begun with Mexican laborers who deemed it a celebration of national pride.

The holiday has been considered the hallmark of Latino’s being assimilated into the fabric of society and, although not Mexico’s Independence day, has become as American as the Fourth of July. Nearly 150 years ago, with the arrival of Mexican immigrants, because Cinco de Mayo was popular in Mexico, the holiday became something around which immigrants as well as Mexican-Americans could rally around. According to Texas State University’s history professor, Frank de la Teja:

Communities adopt holidays to meet their social and sometimes their political needs, and I think that is what happened with Cinco de Mayo. It was a way that Mexican immigrants could celebrate their ethnic background in the American context. It was a holiday all their own.

Unfortunately, without proper understanding of the holiday’s true meaning, many American celebrations result in a parade of stereotypes complete with sombreros and maracas. Although the celebrations may involve good intention, they often display poor judgement and are easily considered offensive by those who have knowledge of its history.

There are no shortage of opportunities to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in America. Several businesses capitalize on the holiday with Mexican styled cuisine. Many restaurants offer specials; some have discounted entrees while others offer free items. Chains such as Applebee’s, Baja Fresh, Chili’s Grill and Bar, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Taco Bell, Sonic, Del Taco, Tijuana Flats and Starbucks all have deals in honor the Mexican holiday.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating Mexico’s victory during happy hours at a restaurant or bar, but it is important to remember that Cinco de Mayo is a holiday full of meaning and Mexican pride. This May 5th, in conjunction with fake accents, sombreros, mexican food and tequila shots, do not forget to honor the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo and the celebrated heritage of Mexico.

Written by Cherese Jackson (Virginia)


ABC News

Photo Credits:

Image Courtesy of Adam Simmons – Creativecommons Flickr License
Image Courtesy of Angela Radulescu – Creativecommons Flickr License

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