All You Ever Wanted to Know About Cinco de Mayo Celebrations
Cinco de Mayo is the ultimate Mexican holiday. It’s a celebration of Mexican culture, history, and way of life. Actually, it has even been called the “Mexican St. Patrick’s Day.”
Surprisingly enough, in Mexico, it’s not such a big deal. Yes, Mexicans love a good fiesta, just not this one in particular.
On the other hand, people in the United States just love it! So much that in 2013 it was reported that more beer was purchased for Cinco de Mayo than for the Super Bowl or St. Patrick’s Day.
Stay with me, and discover the fascinating history behind the holiday, its most interesting facts, the best celebrations in the world, and some much-needed vocabulary about it.
Cinco de Mayo Facts
First, let’s learn some curious facts about this Mexican holiday, and later we’ll dig deep into its rich history:
Not Mexico’s Independence Day
The first thing you need to know is that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day, which is on September 16th and it’s a huge celebration in Mexico. Pretty much like the American 4th of July.
So, what are all those tacos, margaritas, and Mariachi bands about? Well, Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle against the French army that took place on May 5, 1862.
Cinco de Mayo – Fifth of May (see a longer list of vocabulary words at the end of this article)
Embraced by the Chicano Movement
This is how the holiday was introduced in the United States, and with time, it became a celebration of Mexican culture embraced by the whole Latino community.
Los Angeles throws the biggest party!
Actually, several parties take place in the city at the same time. This might be surprising, but actually Los Angeles has the second-largest Mexican population in the world (just after Mexico City).
And it makes even more sense when you consider that it’s…
An American-Mexican holiday
According to Jose Alamillo, a professor of Chicano studies, this celebration is not “a Mexican holiday, not an American holiday, but an American-Mexican holiday.”
This is so true. Mexico celebrates it, but not the way people in the States do. Americans celebrate it but only after the Chicanos made it part of American lore. It’s a great example of America’s melting pot theory.
What’s more, the Hispanic community in the United States keeps growing, with 18% of the population identifying as Hispanic and over 53 million Spanish-speakers in the country. It makes sense to embrace a holiday celebrating the cultural heritage of such a large share of the population.
In 1861, Mexico defaulted on its debt payments, provoking the ire of Spain, Britain, and France. The European powers quickly sent menacing military expeditions to the Mexican port of Veracruz to demand their payments.
Mexico came to an agreement with Britain and Spain, who withdrew their armies. However, France decided to invade, with the ultimate goal of establishing a monarchy in Mexico, to curb U.S. power in the Americas.
On May 5th, 1862, both armies met in Puebla, a city located just 70 miles east of Mexico City. What happened that day on the battlefield is a source of pride for Mexicans, as they defeated the best army in the world at the time.
General Ignacio Zaragoza became a national hero, and decades later people all over the world would celebrate this day without even knowing why.
Sadly, a year after the famous Batalla de Puebla (Battle of Puebla), the French army returned, and this time they made it all the way to Mexico City, establishing Maximilian of Habsburg as Emperor of Mexico.
But that’s another story.
Best Cinco de Mayo Celebrations around the World
This is the one Mexican city where Cinco de Mayo celebrations are bigger than those on Independence Day. Poblanos (Puebla inhabitants) hold a month-long celebration that includes re-creations of the battle, parades, cultural festivals, Mariachi bands, and lots of pulque.
In the City of Angels, Cinco de Mayo has taken on a life of its own. Different neighborhoods throw parties, competing to create the most original and spectacular celebration. From the street fair at Fiesta Broadway to the live music at Olvera Street, every place seems to offer something cool and fun, including Taco Madness, Mariachi Night and the Michelada Music Festival.
The Cinco de Mayo Celebrate Culture Festival in Denver, Colorado, attracts around 400,000 people for a two-day celebration of Mexican culture. Among the activities, you will find Chihuahua races and taco-eating contests. It sounds like my kind of party.
Cinco de Mayo fame has gone all the way to the Far East, where Tokyo holds a festival celebrating Mexican and other Latin American cultures.
What about Latin America?
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo became a celebration of Mexican heritage, because many Mexicans have migrated to the country over the years. However, no big Mexican communities exist in Latin American countries.
For Latin America, Cinco de Mayo is simply a commemoration of a Mexican military victory. Mexicans don’t celebrate Argentinian military victories, and Chileans don’t celebrate Peruvian victories. Why would they, right?
Maybe one day, if the Cinco de Mayo furor keeps growing, and it really becomes a “Mexican St. Patrick’s Day”, other Latin American countries will adopt the holiday as an excuse to celebrate Hispanic heritage like they do in the United States—or just to have a good party.
Cinco de Mayo Vocabulary
Now, let’s focus on some of the most common words you are going to need the next time you go to a Cinco de Mayo celebration:
cinco – five
mayo – May
la batalla – battle
la guerra – war
el ejército – army
la fiesta – party
la celebración – celebration
feliz – happy
el mariachi – mariachi band
la salsa – sauce
la cerveza – beer
el tequila – tequila
amigo – a male friend
amiga – a female friend
el sombrero – hat
el patrimonio – heritage
la bandera – flag
la conmemoración – commemoration
el desfile – parade
el baile folklórico – folk dance
And here are some all-important Mexican foods and beverages that have no English translation:
el tamal – tamal or tamale is a dish made of cornmeal dough filled with meat, chicken, or peppers and wrapped in corn husks.
los antojitos – antojitos are a variety of traditional snacks usually made of cornmeal dough with different fillings and toppings, including sopes, tacos, gorditas, quesadillas, nachos, and flautas.
la michelada – michelada is a popular drink made of beer, lime juice, a mix of sauces, salt, and (sometimes) tomato juice.
¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!
This year, due to social distancing measures, it’s going to be hard to celebrate Cinco de Mayo as usual. However, you can practice your newly acquired Cinco de Mayo vocabulary words by signing up for a free trial class with one of our native Spanish speaking teachers, and maybe next year you’ll be ready to make some new amigos in this most Mexican of fiestas!
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