Today marks the 154th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo, a bicultural celebration that has become synonymous with margaritas, cervezas (beer), mariachi and Mexican food.
Cinco de Mayo commemorated the triumph of the Mexican army victory over France during the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. In 1861, France sent a massive army to invade Mexico, as they wanted to collect on some war debts. The French army was much larger, better trained and equipped than the Mexicans struggling to defend the road to Mexico City. It rolled through Mexico until it reached Puebla, where the Mexicans made a valiant stand, and, against all logic, won a huge victory. It was short-lived, as the French army regrouped and continued; eventually taking Mexico City, but the euphoria of an unlikely victory against overwhelming odds is remembered every May fifth. This victory occurred over 50 years after Mexico’s Independence Day, which is celebrated on September 16.
Cinco de Mayo is a big deal in Puebla, where the famous battle took place but it really isn’t as important as most people think. September 16, Independence Day, is a much more important holiday in Mexico. For some reason, Cinco de Mayo is a bigger celebration in the U.S. than in Mexico. In fact, Los Angeles is host to what is routinely described as the largest Cinco de Mayo party in the world, a multiday event known as Fiesta Broadway. The scale of these festivities even dwarfs those in Puebla.
One theory for why it is more popular in the USA is that at one time, it was celebrated in all of Mexico and by Mexicans living in former Mexican territories such as Texas and California. It was ignored in Mexico after a while but still celebrated north of the border, which never got out of the habit of remembering the famous battle.
In Puebla and in many USA cities with large Mexican populations, there are parades, dancing and festivals. Traditional Mexican food is served or sold. Mariachi bands fill town squares, and a lot of Dos Equis and Corona beers are served. It’s a fun holiday, really more about celebrating the Mexican way of life than about remembering a battle which happened 150 years ago. It is sometimes referred to as a “Mexican St. Patrick’s Day.” In the USA, schoolchildren do units on the holiday, decorate their classrooms and try their hand at cooking some basic Mexican foods.
All over the world, Mexican restaurants bring in Mariachi bands and offer specials for what’s almost certain to be a packed house.