What Is Cinco de Mayo, Exactly?
Here’s what you need to know about Cinco de Mayo’s history in Mexico and the U.S., plus more than 80 amazing recipes for this year’s celebration:
What Is Cinco de Mayo?
Cinco de Mayo, which translates to “the fifth of May,” celebrates the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War.
When Benito Juárez was elected president of Mexico in 1861, the country was in the middle of a period of economic upheaval.
The Mexican-American War and the Reform War (a civil war that was fought over the Catholic church’s involvement in the Mexican government) had all but bankrupted Mexico. Juárez issued a moratorium shortly after his election that suspended all foreign debt payments for two years.
France, Britain, and Spain took issue with this decision, and sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand reimbursement.
While Britain and Spain withdrew after they negotiated deals with Mexico, France stood its ground. Napoleon III wanted to expand his French empire to Mexico, and this was the perfect opportunity to seize power.
The French invaded Veracruz in late 1861, forcing the Mexican government to retreat.
You still with me? Good, because here’s where things get interesting:
French troops, led by General Charles Latrille de Lorencez, set out to conquer Mexico City in 1862. However, they were met with extreme resistance in the small town of Puebla de Los Angeles in east-Central Mexico.
Though they were vastly outnumbered and ill-equipped, the 2,000 Mexican troops—sent by Juárez to Puebla and led by General Ignacio Zaragoza—forced the French into retreat on May 5.
Though the French were eventually able to overtake Mexico City, the unlikely Mexican victory in Puebla inspired people throughout the country and strengthened the resistance movement.
Cinco de Mayo vs. Mexican Independence Day
Cinco de Mayo is often mistakenly called “Mexican Independence Day,” and conflated with the American Fourth of July.
While there is a Mexican Independence Day, it’s not celebrated on the fifth of May.
The Mexican equivalent of July Fourth, which is called “El Grito” or “Grito de Dolores” is actually celebrated on September 16.
El Grito commemorates the start of the 1810-1821 Mexican War of Independence from Spain.
Cinco de Mayo in Mexico
Unlike El Grito, Cinco de Mayo is not a national holiday in Mexico, which means banks and most offices remain open and fully functional.
It’s mostly celebrated in Puebla with military parades, battle reenactments, and festivals.
Cinco de Mayo in the U.S.
By many accounts, Cinco de Mayo is more widely acknowledged in the U.S. than it is in Mexico.
It’s been celebrated in parts of California since the 1860s, but skyrocketed in nationwide popularity a century later. Mexican-American activists involved in the civil rights movement of the ‘60s, known as Chicanos, began using the anniversary of Mexico’s unlikely 1862 victory over France as a day to celebrate Mexican culture.
“The fact that the holiday has been so little celebrated in Mexico while being so widely celebrated in the United States leads to the conclusion that the commemoration took two very different, independent paths, one indigenous to the United States and one indigenous to Mexico,” wrote UCLA professor David Hayes-Bautista in his 2012 book El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition.
Over time, the day has lost some of its historical significance in favor of commercial marketing and cultural appropriation, according to Hayes-Bautista.
“I’m trying to get a better sense of how that became so thoroughly lost,” he told The New York Times in 2018. “It’d be like if the Fourth of July were reduced to beer and hot dogs.”
When NYT reporters Claudio E. Cabrera and Louis Lucero II asked Hayes Bautista to imagine an improved Cinco de Mayo celebration in the U.S., he explained that he doesn’t disapprove of drinking and partying on the holiday—but that he wishes celebrants would focus more on the historical significance of May 5.
“Let’s bring it back to its roots as a civil rights and social justice commemoration,” he said.
Cinco de Mayo Recipes
No matter how you feel about the holiday, you can’t argue that celebrating Cinco de Mayo with food and drink is a pretty big deal in the U.S.
Nielson reported in 2013 that Americans spent more than $600 million on beer on May 5—that’s more than what was spent on the Super Bowl or St. Patrick’s Day.
If you’re planning a respectful celebration of Mexican food and culture this year, we’ve got your Cinco de Mayo menu covered.
Check out more than 80 party-perfect appetizer, drink, and dessert recipes: