The Real Meaning of Cinco de Mayo (No, it’s not Mexican Independence Day)

In the U.S. we tend to get very enthusiastic about holidays, especially when we’re celebrating other countries’ holidays. St. Patrick’s Day is a bigger deal in the U.S. than in Ireland and Cinco de Mayo is hardly celebrated in México. So what exactly is Cinco de Mayo celebrating if not Mexican independence and why is it such a big deal in the U.S.?

Cinco de Mayo actually celebrates the Battle of Puebla in 1862, during which the much smaller Mexican army claimed victory over the French army who had invaded due to  debts that México had stopped paying to France. Although the underdog victory slowed down the French, they did end up defeating the Mexicans and instated the Archduke Maximilian as Emperor of the Second Mexican Empire. Only five years later, the Emperor Maximilian was executed and Benito Juárez returned as president of Mexico.

In Mexico, this day is really only celebrated in Puebla, it’s not even an official national holiday. Mexican Independence Day is celebrated on September 16th, which is when Mexico gained independence from the Spanish in 1821. So why then, does gringolandia celebrate Cinco de Mayo with such enthusiasm?

There’s really three answers to that question.  One is that the U.S. supported the Mexican government throughout the French occupation and actually pressured the French to remove their troops from Mexico. Having relatively recently disposed of our European rulers, the U.S. was pushing for a North America free of European intervention (to promote freedom and independence or to be the major political player in North America, depending on your levels of idealism).

Really the main reasons though are the same reasons St. Patrick’s Day is so popular: immigrants’ nostalgia and alcohol. Many Mexican immigrants in the U.S. come from the state of Puebla and their special holiday became a celebration of Mexican culture adopted by many Chicanos. It was a way to keep their culture alive, even as their children grew up speaking English and integrating into American culture. However, it was still mainly celebrated in California and in areas with large Mexican populations up until the ’80s when beer companies realized they could promote this holiday to sell more beer. So in true capitalist spirit, beer companies started creating spanish-language ads and marketed like crazy until the holiday was adopted by Chicanos and gringos alike.

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If this last bit sounds crazy, that’s consumerism for you. But if you want to celebrate Cinco de Mayo a bit more authentically and with less cultural appropriation this year, maybe just try to balance your focus to include all the other great aspects of Mexican culture, not just Corona. That being said, I’m experiencing a weird sort of expat nostalgia for our Americanized celebration of this holiday so I’ll be drinking a margarita or two in celebration. ¡Salud!

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