Updated: Sep 20, 2021
Cinco de Mayo is a celebration that is widely familiar but not very well understood, especially in the United States. We have answers to the most common questions about the holiday and what it's really about. We'll also share some delicious recipes featuring El Yucateco Mexican hot sauce, so you can make the most of your own Cinco de Mayo celebration.
The party is always more fun when you know what you're celebrating. Plus, your new historical knowledge will impress your friends and family.
What does Cinco de Mayo mean?
"Cinco de Mayo" translates to English as "Fifth of May." So, you never need to look up the date of Cinco de Mayo! However, it doesn't tell you anything about the actual celebration.
Let's clear up two misconceptions before we dive into the real history.
Is Cinco de Mayo Mexican Independence Day?
Nope! Mexico won independence from Spain in 1810 (over 50 years earlier than the battle of Puebla), and that victory is celebrated on September 16th.
Is Cinco de Mayo the Day of the Dead?
Nope! Día de los Muertos is a day to remember and honor departed friends and family. It takes place at the beginning of November.
With that out of the way, here's the true story behind Cinco de Mayo.
What does Cinco de Mayo commemorate?
Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle between Mexican and French forces that took place in 1862 in the town of Puebla, Mexico.
In 1861 Mexico had faced years of internal unrest and hardship after winning its independence from Spain. Due to this, newly elected President Benito Juárez was unable to repay debts to several European nations, including France. Though England and Spain negotiated, Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon I) saw this as an opportunity to claim Mexico for a French empire. A French fleet soon landed at Veracruz, beginning a six-year invasion and war.
In the spring of 1862, about 6,000 French soldiers marched inland to take the small Mexican town of Puebla de Los Angeles. President Juárez gathered around 2,000 loyal men to fortify and defend the town. On the 5th of May, the French army attacked. Though vastly outnumbered and under-supplied, the Mexican forces successfully defended the town and, by sunset, forced the French to retreat.
This battle held little strategic value in the overall course of the war. However, the unexpected victory at Puebla became a powerful symbol of Mexico's fierce determination to stand against French imperialism. News of the unlikely victory spread through the country, inspiring hope and determination far and wide. It became a rallying cry for those fighting against greater numbers and overwhelming odds. This encouragement was sorely needed in the coming years, as the French occupation didn't end until 1867.
Is Cinco de Mayo Celebrated in Mexico?
Yes, but mainly in the city of Puebla.
Cinco de Mayo isn't a national or bank holiday, so it is regarded as an ordinary day in many places. However, celebrations in the city of Puebla can include parades, dancing, music, historical reenactments, and more.
How did Cinco de Mayo come to the US?
Cinco de Mayo developed in several stages in the United States.
During the war and occupation, Mexican agents used the symbol of the victory at Puebla to drum up US support. This effect was limited during the US Civil War, as there weren't many resources to spare. After 1865, however, the United States more openly supported Mexico's fight against French occupation. The parallels between Mexico's fight and an American nation fighting for independence from European rule were obvious, and US support was one factor that helped Mexico finally defeat the French in 1867.
In the 1930s, President Roosevelt encouraged Cinco de Mayo's celebration to foster goodwill between the US and Mexico. This was a part of his Good Neighbor Policy that encouraged international cooperation.
Activists brought US attention back to Cinco de Mayo in the 1960s, mainly in the southwestern United States.
These days Cinco de Mayo in the US is interpreted mostly as a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in communities with large Hispanic populations. Los Angeles holds one of the largest annual festivals, although many other cities celebrate the day as well.
Because of these different waves of attention through the years (and because some brands use it as a tool to sell tequila), Cinco de Mayo is celebrated more in the United States than throughout most of Mexico.
How can I celebrate Cinco de Mayo?
Now that you know its origins and meaning, there are many ways to commemorate Cinco de Mayo. Depending on your location, your town or community may have public festivities. Parades, mariachi music, and Mexican cuisine are all popular activities.
There are also fun ways to celebrate at home. Decorating with the red, white, and green of the Mexican flag is a classic activity, as is dancing to vibrant mariachi music. It's also great fun to learn a new Mexican recipe (or three) and cook it up in your own kitchen. Then you have a new skill that will stay with you long after May the 5th.
What's the best Cinco de Mayo menu?
Truly, Mexico is a large country with widely varied cuisine. There are so many delicious recipes to explore!
El Yucateco is made in Mérida, a sister city to Puebla, so here are a few of our favorite recipes using authentic Mexican habanero hot sauce.
Margaritas have become a big part of US Cinco de Mayo celebrations (largely because of advertising), but if you're looking to indulge in some tequila, here's a cocktail recipe for something a little different.
Bonus Answer: When will Cinco de Mayo be on Tuesday again?
People ask this question because of "Taco Tuesday," a US custom of going out for tacos or other Mexican food on Tuesday nights. Although many restaurants throughout the country offer Taco Tuesday specials to encourage business, it's most popular in Southern California.
2026 is the next year that Cinco de Mayo will fall on a Tuesday, followed by 2037! It'll be a while.
2nd Bonus Answer: Is Cinco de Mayo about Mayonnaise?
By now, we hope this question (which actually exists in Google for some reason) sounds as silly as it is.
Now that you know why people commemorate Cinco de Mayo and where it comes from, enjoy the day! Share your new wisdom with friends and family, and impress your crew with the real facts! It's always a good time to honor standing up for your beliefs and to learn about a culture, whether that culture is your own or someone else's.
Happy Cinco de Mayo!
For more spicy science, history, and delicious recipes, check out these other posts:
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