The History of Cinco de Mayo and How It’s Celebrated

More than being an excuse to treat oneself to nachos, tacos, mezcal and margaritas, Cinco de Mayo has a history that runs deep and continues to serve as a vehicle conveying Mexican culture, pride and values.

Here are a few things to know about the day:

What’s the significance of Cinco de Mayo?

Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexico’s unexpected victory over France in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The conflict between the two countries had begun in 1861, after Benito Juárez, then the president of Mexico, suspended the nation’s foreign debt payments, and Napoleon III responded by sending French troops to invade.

The victory in Puebla galvanized the Mexican forces but turned out to be short-lived, and France later occupied the country, installing Maximilian I as emperor. Not until 1867 did the new Mexican Republic finally expel the French, execute Maximilian I and regain control of the country.

When and where is Cinco de Mayo celebrated?

Cinco de Mayo literally means “May 5” in Spanish, which is when this celebration of Mexican heritage falls each year. The day, mostly commemorated by Mexican Americans north of the U.S. border, is also celebrated in Puebla, the town and region southeast of Mexico City, where the holiday originated.

Is Cinco de Mayo Mexico’s Independence Day?

No. Cinco de Mayo is often mistaken for Mexico’s Independence Day in the United States, but Mexican independence is actually celebrated on Sept. 16. On that day, in 1810, a priest named Miguel Hidalgo called upon the Mexican people to revolt against the rule of Spain, eventually leading to the War for Independence, which ended in 1821.

How did the holiday come to be celebrated in the United States?

Jessica Lavariega Monforti, the vice provost at California State University, Channel Islands, said that Cinco de Mayo had been celebrated in California every year since its inception in 1863. In that first year, Mexicans and Americans in the state came together to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla and use it to raise money and recruit men to aid those still fighting under the leadership of Juárez against the French.

Those early celebrations, Dr. Lavariega Monforti said, were mostly about fighting for democracy and freedom against white supremacists and other oppressors — both in Mexico and in Civil War-era California, where Latinos mostly favored a Union victory over the Confederacy.

Cinco de Mayo continued to be celebrated in the United States, largely thanks to the efforts of those of Mexican descent. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, said followers of the dictator Porfirio Díaz, who ruled Mexico intermittently between 1876 and 1911, and had been a general in the Battle of Puebla, continued to celebrate Cinco de Mayo while living in exile in the American south.

The celebration gradually became a şenlik for Mexicans and Mexican Americans across the country, as well as part of a developing Mexican-American civil rights movement that started in the 1940s. Many activists started pointing to Cinco de Mayo as a source of pride, Dr. Lavariega Monforti said.

Over time, however, that message of cultural pride seemed to get lost. Mr. Pilcher said that Cinco de Mayo began to take off in the United States in the 1970s and 80s, when brewing companies began capitalizing on it as a way to appeal to consumers amid the rising popularity of Mexican restaurants.

“By the 1990s, most of the public discourse about the day had been refocused on it as a time to consume imported beer, tequila and Mexican food,” Dr. Lavariega Monforti said.

What are some ways people celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

In Mexico, the festivity is marked in the state of Puebla with historical re-enactments of the Battle of Puebla, parades, mariachi music, colorful costumes and fireworks. “For many Mexicans, however, May 5 is a day like any other. It is not a federal holiday, so offices, banks and stores remain open,” said Dr. Lavariega Monforti.

Celebrations are more visible in the United States. Dr. Lavariega Monforti said that some communities in the United States, especially those with roots in the Puebla region, have attempted to reclaim the celebration as their own in recent years.

These efforts are mostly visible in larger cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, where events are dedicated to the celebrations of dance, literature and food from Puebla. In New York City, some Mexican folkloric troupes are also treating Cinco de Mayo as an opportunity to direct attention to the historic events and culture of the Puebla region.

“It seems that these efforts are direct responses to the consumerism surrounding Cinco de Mayo, and the commercialization of Latino culture in the United States,” Dr. Lavariega Monforti said.

U.S. presidents traditionally mark the occasion, too. President Biden and Jill Biden, the first lady, will host a Cinco de Mayo reception in the Rose Garden on Thursday, which will also be attended by Beatriz Gutierrez Muller, the first lady of Mexico.

Chicken with mole poblano, a sauce made with chocolate, nuts, chiles and spices, at a restaurant in Puebla, Mexico. Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

What should I eat on Cinco de Mayo?

There is no Mexican dish associated with the festivity, Mr. Pilcher explained, but it can still be an occasion to gather and honor Mexico’s, and Puebla’s own, culinary traditions.

Pedro Reyes, a Mexican food writer and creative director at Paladar, a Mexican company devoted to the development of culinary projects, said that mole poblano, the chocolate-rich version of mole that originated in Puebla, might be a good pick for a Cinco de Mayo-inspired feast. He suggested pairing the dish with chalupas, small fried tortillas enjoyed with a variety of fillings; white rice; nopales salad; fried beans; and molotes de plátano, stuffed plantain patties. Besides beer and tequila, beverages could include agua fresca, a light fruit drink in flavors like hibiscus, horchata and tamarind, as well as pulque, a fermented alcoholic drink.

And please, keep your peas as far as you can from your avocados, at least on this occasion. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like them, I can eat them,” Mr. Reyes said. “But where’s the need to mess with my guacamole?”

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