In the United States, Cinco de Mayo, or May 5, is seen as the day to celebrate Mexican food, culture, and traditions. Of course, it's also a great excuse to enjoy some Mexican drinks. Many who celebrate in the U.S. assume—incorrectly—that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico's Independence Day.
In contrast, Cinco de Mayo in Mexico is celebrated in a very low-key manner. Students get the day off, but banks and government offices are open. The only major parades and fiestas taking place south of the border are held in the city of Puebla, where there's a military parade and a mock battle is staged to commemorate the Battle of Puebla, the event that gave rise to the holiday.
So why is Cinco de Mayo celebrated with such fanfare in the United States? As with many holidays, a lot of the celebration is due to marketing. People across the U.S., whether of Mexican heritage or not, use the day as an excuse to eat Tex-Mex cuisine, drink Mexican beers, and prepare pitchers of margaritas, and the holiday is often associated with partying.
However, just as Saint Patrick's Day is a day to celebrate Irish culture for Irish-Americans, Cinco de Mayo has become a day for Mexican-Americans to show pride in their own unique culture. Since Cinco de Mayo is not widely celebrated in Mexico, the festivities can be seen more as a Mexican-American celebration than a Mexican one.
History of Cinco de Mayo in the U.S.
In 1862, at the time the Battle of Puebla took place, the United States was engaged in its Civil War. The French presence in Mexico was a strategic move: By gaining a toehold in Mexico, the French could then support the Confederate Army. The defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla was not definitive, but it helped to stave off the French while the U.S. Union forces made advances. Thus Cinco de Mayo can be seen as a turning point in the U.S. Civil War. Cinco de Mayo was first celebrated in the United States in Southern California in 1863 as a show of solidarity with Mexico against French rule.
Celebrations continued on a yearly basis and by the 1930s it was seen as an opportunity to celebrate Mexican identity, promote ethnic consciousness, and build community solidarity. In the 1950s and 60s, Mexican-American youths appropriated the holiday and it gained a bi-national flavor, and its celebration was used as a way to build Mexican-American pride. Celebrations sometimes acquired corporate sponsors, and this is the way the holiday began to take on a commercial flavor.
In the 1980s the holiday began to be commercialized on a wide scale. Now Cinco de Mayo is promoted as the day to celebrate Mexican food, culture, traditions, and of course, booze. Although for many without Mexican heritage it's just an excuse to throw a party and drink, they should also remember that it's a day of cultural pride for Mexican-Americans—even if it isn't widely celebrated in Mexico itself.
Mexican Independence Day
Perhaps it would make more sense to celebrate Mexican culture on Mexican Independence Day, September 16, which is a national holiday throughout all of Mexico. But Cinco de Mayo initially started in the U.S. because of historical ties to the Civil War and grew from there, while Mexican Independence Day has no connections to the U.S. Plus, saying "Cinco de Mayo" is much easier for non-Spanish speakers than "dieciséis de septiembre."
So, by all means, celebrate Cinco de Mayo but do so respectfully. Throw a Mexican fiesta. Enjoy some Mexican food. Learn about Mexican traditions and culture. And please remember, it isn't Mexican Independence Day.