What Is Cinco De Mayo?

May 5th is not just another day on the calendar that happens to fall between the 4th and the 6th. It is also a national day of celebration in Mexico known as Cinco De Mayo. Cinco De Mayo is a day of great importance that combines food, music, and festivals. It is not to be confused with Mexican Independence Day which is celebrated on September 16. Mexican Independence Day is the day that Mexico gained its independence from Spain. No, Cinco De Mayo celebrates another important event in Mexican history. It commemorates the victory of the Mexican militia over the French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The holiday is observed only in certain regions of Mexico, namely around the Puebla district. But it is highly observed in Latin communities throughout the United States and elsewhere in the world. It is a day that signifies Mexican pride and traditions. Yet how did it all come about? What is the history of Cinco De Mayo and how is it celebrated? One of the best things about this day is that you don’t necessarily have to be Latin to be able to enjoy this festive day.

History of Cinco De Mayo

In 1862, Mexico was in a state of violent chaos and upheaval. After claiming Independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico had gone through several internal wars fueled by politics. There was the Mexican-American War between 1846 to 1848 and the Mexican Civil War of 1858. In fact, the Mexican economy was in shambles after so many years of conflict.

During these years of strife, Mexico had accumulated a large amount of debt to other countries such as the United States, England, Spain, and France. Their debt to the U.S. was settled after the Mexican-American War but they still owed other countries. In 1861 President Benito Juarez declared that all debt payments would cease for two years while Mexico tried to rebuild its economy. France was intent on increasing its empire at that time and as soon as Mexico stopped payments on its debt, France used that as an excuse to invade and gain control of Mexico. The plan was to set up Archduke Maximilian of Austria, a relative of Napoleon III’s, as ruler.

The French army landed near the state of Vera Cruz along the Gulf Coast. Their intent was to march directly to Mexico City. During their march, they met resistance from a smaller Mexican force near the town of Puebla. Led by General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, the militia of just over 4,000 men held off the better-trained and better-supplied French army of almost 7,000 soldiers. At that time, the French army had not known a defeat for almost 50 years. But this smaller army of militia managed to turn the invaders back and was cause for a national unity all across Mexico.

Unfortunately, the victory did not completely stop the French from achieving their goal. When reports of the army’s defeat reached Napoleon III, he sent reinforcements and a year later French armies arrived in Mexico City and set up Maximilian I as Emperor of Mexico which lasted from 1864 to 1867. By this time the American Civil War was over and the U.S. began to supply assistance to Mexican nationals to repel the French occupation. Maximilian was deposed and executed by President Benito Juarez. His bullet-riddled shirt is still on display at the museum at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. So what Cinco De Mayo really celebrates is the bravery of the outnumbered defenders of Puebla against the massive French army.

Cinco De Mayo Celebrations And Activities

Cinco De Mayo is not widely celebrated throughout Mexico to the same degree. Some regions do not celebrate it at all. The biggest celebrations naturally take place in Puebla where the vents took place. Unlike some other Mexican holidays such as Day of the Dead, which involves prayer and can be somber in tone, Cinco De Mayo is much more festive. It is a celebration of life. It involves cultural food, social gatherings, parades, and traditional Mexican music known as mariachi music. Dancing is also a big part of Cinco De Mayo’s celebrations. Traditional and regional dances such as ballet folklorica are almost a celebration requirement.

Cinco De Mayo celebrations can also be educational. There are many websites that have resources and lesson plans for teachers that revolve around this holiday. Activities and crafts may include anything from constructing cultural items such as maracas or a sombrero. It may involve cooking traditional Mexican foods. Teachers can even educate their children on the colors of the Mexican flag. One of the best activities for kids is, of course, the Mexican piñata. This simple but fun construction is filled with candy and prizes then hoisted up in a tree. Children are then blindfolded and then take turns swinging a stick to try to break open the piñata and get the candy.

Many people celebrate Cinco De Mayo on their own. They decorate their homes and invite friends over for a party. If you want to have a Cinco De Mayo celebration in your home, a good thing to do is plan ahead and send out invitations. Decorate your home in traditional Mexican colors. Think bright greens, reds, blues, and yellows. You can pick up some Mexican mariachi from the music store along with other decorations. The Mexican Flag along with the colors of the flag should be used (green, white, and red). Drinks and food are a big part of the holiday so you will want to plan a menu of cultural foods like nachos, fajitas, quesadillas, chile rellenos, and other regionally appropriate items. Tortillas are a must and you can do anything with them. Pick a spot for dancing and a spot for a piñata and you are all set.

Over the years Cinco De Mayo has become, like many celebrated holidays, very commercialized and many people see this holiday as an excuse for fun and dance without realizing its true significance. In fact, Cinco De Mayo has become more of Latin-American holiday than a Mexican one. Cinco De Mayo is much more celebrated in the United States by Americans of Mexican descent than it is in Mexico.

Cinco De Mayo Facts

There is a lot of information related to the celebration of Cinco De Mayo. If you are interested in facts and trivia, here is more about the cultural holiday.

  • In 2006, the U.S. Census declared that there were 28.3 million U.S. residents of Mexican origin. They made up 64% of the Hispanic population in the U.S. and 9% of the nation’s total population.
  • General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin was Texas-born.
  • The Battle of Puebla lasted for 4 hours before the French retreated.
  • The French army was carrying supplies to aid the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War. When they were stopped, this allowed the Union time to build their army which went on to claim victory at Gettysburg, thus securing their overall victory in the Civil War.
  • The commander of the Mexican cavalry that fought the French army at Puebla was Col. Porforio Diaz who later became Mexico’s president and dictator.
  • The first recognized Cinco De Mayo celebration was held in 1967 in the United States by a group of California State University students. They wanted to start a new tradition because they felt there were no Chicano holidays. By celebrating Cinco De Mayo as culturally historic, it helped the students in their struggle for the formation of a Chicano Studies program at the university.
  • The largest Cinco De Mayo celebration is held in Loa Angeles, California and is called “Festival de Fiesta Broadway”. It averages 600,000 celebrating visitors a year.
  • The Cinco De Mayo celebration in Chandler, Arizona, is known for its Chihuahuas. There are parades, pageants, and even races that all involved the small, wiry dogs.
  • Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, is believed to be where mariachi music and the Mexican hat dance is to have originated.
  • The ancient Mayans of Mexico were the first known people to harvest the peanut.
  • The colors of the Mexican flag are green, white, and red. Traditionally, the colors have significance. Green stands for hope and independence. White stands for purity and religion. Red stands for Spain and unity. In the center of the flag is an eagle and a snake which have roots in Aztec mythology.
  • Mexico actually celebrates 365 festivals each year.
  • People celebrating Cinco De Mayo wear red, white, and green traditional clothing.
  • In many Cinco De Mayo parades, parade volunteers dress as either the French soldiers or the Mexican militia.

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