The history and celebration of Cinco de Mayo, a holiday held on the 5th of May in Mexico and the United States celebrates Mexican culture and perseverance. It has a special place in my heart. I do not have any Mexican heritage myself, though I do have extended family members who are Mexican. My fondness for Cinco de Mayo comes more from having lived and studied in Mexico multiple times as both an undergraduate and graduate student. As a result, I have an enormous respect and fondness for the history, culture, and people of Mexico. Cinco de Mayo is a chance to honor that rich cultural tradition.
The History of Cinco de Mayo
In 1862, Mexico was a very young nation. It had achieved its independence from Spain in 1821. Not long after gaining independence, Mexico was drawn into two very expensive conflicts. The first was the Mexican-American war, which ended in 1848 and resulted in Mexico ceding a large portion of its territory to the United States of America. The second was the Reform War, a civil war, resolved in 1860. These conflicts left the Mexican government impoverished and in debt. Mexican president Benito Juárez announced that Mexico would stop payments on the debts for two years, hoping to give Mexico time to rebuild its economy (Bueno 2018).
This was not a popular decision with Spain, France, and the United Kingdom, who had lent the money. They sent troops. Mexico successfully negotiated with Spain and the UK for the deferment on paying back the loan. France was focused on conquest, however, and pushed on toward the Mexican capital in Mexico City. To halt the march, Mexico hastily sent troops to fortify the city of Puebla. These troops were inexperienced, poorly equipped, and massively outnumbered. The French forces, in contrast, were elite, well equipped, and considered one of the best in the world. Despite their disadvantages, on the 5th of May the Mexican troops were able to successfully stop the French forces and forced them into a retreat (Bueno 2018).
Although the Cinco de Mayo victory was important, it was only a temporary one.
The French returned and in 1863 successfully took the city of Puebla and continued onward to conquer Mexico City. With the Mexican government defeated, Napoleon III made his nephew, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, the Emperor of Mexico. The French control over Mexico was brief, however, as the Mexicans fought back (Carlson 1998). “Cinco de Mayo” became the rallying cry for the Mexican resistance (Digest Editors 2019). Finally, in 1867 and with assistance from the United States, the French were finally defeated and the Mexican government reinstated (Bueno 2018).
Celebrations in Mexico
Cinco de Mayo is a minor holiday in Mexico, mostly celebrated in Puebla and Mexico City. Mexico’s Independence Day, Diez y Seis de Septiembre, or the 16th of September, is a much more important holiday to them than Cinco de Mayo (Carlson 1998).
The largest Cinco de Mayo festival is in Puebla (Bueno 2018). There, they have a large parade including the soldiers in their historical French and Mexican uniforms. Women wear brightly colored traditional dresses to represent the women who traveled with the armies. In typical Mexican style, the parade includes musicians and dancers as well (Borade 2018). The parade also features many brightly decorated floats (Avakain 2015). After the parade, the reenactors recreate the 1962 Battle of Puebla, with simulated cannon and rifle fire and sword battles (Borade 2018). The re-enactment draws visitors from all over the world (Bueno 2018).
Once the Battle is over, they continue their Cinco de Mayo celebrations with traditional music, dances, and food. Puebla specializes in restaurants that serve classic Mexican dishes like mole poblano and chicken tinga. If that isn’t enough, Puebla also hosts on Cinco de Mayo the Festival internacional de Puebla. Artists from around the world come to perform in addition to traditional Mexican music (Borade 2018).
I have never been to Puebla, but I would love to go some day for their Cinco de Mayo celebrations. I love living history events and would love to see the reenacted Battle of Puebla. In addition to the festivities, I would love to see the city itself. Puebla is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the city’s cathedrals. Many of them date back to the 16th and 17th Centuries.
Cinco de Mayo is a much bigger holiday in the USA, however.
Interestingly enough, historians believe that Mexican Americans were the first people to celebrate the Cinco de Mayo. When France invaded in 1862, the Western United States had only recently acquired the Western part of the country from Mexico. Not only were the Mexican Americans unhappy with the French imperialism, but they believed that once it conquered Mexico, France would join forces with the Confederate South. They used the Cinco de Mayo as a rally point to encourage the United States to to support Mexico against the French (Waxman 2017).
The Chicano Movement in the 1960s, however, turned Cinco de Mayo into the celebration that we know today. The Cinco de Mayo holiday became a way to connect Mexican Americans to their Mexican heritage. They chose Cinco de Mayo over other possibilities like Diez y Seis de Septiembre because Cinco de Mayo was the story of the underdogs winning against overwhelming odds.
Because of the Chicano Movement, schools in regions with large Mexican American populations started to include Mexican history and culture in their curriculum, including why Mexicans celebrated the Cinco de Mayo. Governments in parts of the country with large numbers of Mexican Americans began to use the celebrations as a way to connect with their hispanic constituents. The celebrations became a combination of cultural pride and political and economic advocacy during the Civil Rights era (Carlson 1998).
The Cinco de Mayo festivals in the United States took off in the 1980s.
This change was largely driven by the rapidly growing Latin American population, a large percentage of which were Mexican Americans. Hispanics had become the fastest growing minority group as a result of a combination of immigration and population growth. By the 1990s, there were at least 122 Cinco de Mayo festivals throughout the country. Concentrated in the Southwest, the festivals are not limited to that region of the US. Perhaps the most surprising, Hawaii celebrates Cinco de Mayo. Mexican cowboys moved to Hawaii the 1830s to help in the livestock industry (Carlson 1998).
The Cinco de Mayo festivals today celebrate Mexican and Mexican American culture. Typically, these festivals include Mexican and Tex-Mex food, music and dancing. Food is an important part of any cultural identity and celebration. It is no surprise the festivals offer a wide variety of delicious Mexican food such as tamales–a personal favorite of mine–flautas, and enchiladas. Many include activities and games, especially for children, including breaking piñatas. Some also have parades and even beauty pageants. Often, visitors can shop for ethnic arts and crafts as well (Carlson 1998).
The USA made Cinco de Mayo an official holiday in 2005.
These celebrations are some of the many festivals in the United States celebrating different ethnic identities, including Irish, Polish, German, French, Native American, and more. Like St. Patrick’s Day, it has become a day celebrated by more than just Americans of that ethnic heritage (Carlson 1998). In a nation as richly diverse as the United States, these festivals can help honor our differences and bring people of diverse backgrounds together.
I am looking forward to celebrating the Cinco de Mayo again this year, and I hope you are as well.
at The Researcher’s Gatway