Publication date April 13, 2022

Cinco De Mayo: There's a lot more to it than drinking!

Cinco de Mayo celebrations

Understanding the Cultural Importance of Cinco de Mayo

We love to celebrate the Mexican food traditions associated with other holidays because it allows us to see the beauty of a diverse culture through the preparation and sharing of a good dinner. We also believe that it is critical to recognize and respect the distinction between admiration and appropriation. With this in mind, we'd like to take the time to explore the history of Cinco de Mayo and offer some advice on how to celebrate the event in a way that respects the rich tradition of Mexican culture.

The History of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo, or May 5th, is a celebration commemorating the date of the Mexican army's improbable triumph against France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War in 1862. The celebration is also known as Battle of Puebla Day, and it should not be confused with Mexican Independence Day, which took place over 50 years before the Battle of Puebla.

The Battle of Puebla began in 1861, when Benito Juárez, a member of the Indigenous Zapotec, was elected President of Mexico. The country was in financial devastation at the time of his election as a result of several years of civil conflict, which caused Juárez to default on loan payments to European governments. In retaliation, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain dispatched naval forces to Veracruz, Mexico, to demand compensation. Mexico was able to successfully negotiate with the United Kingdom and Spain, resulting in the departure of their forces. However, France, led by Napoleon III, saw it as an opportunity to carve out an empire in Mexican territory and establish a French emperor.

A well-armed fleet of French soldiers assaulted Veracruz late in 1861, forcing President Juárez and his cabinet to evacuate. Soon after, 6,000 French forces led by General Charles Latrille de Lorencez launched an assault on Puebla de Los Angeles, a tiny town in east-central Mexico. Juárez dispatched a ragged group of 2,000 faithful troops to Puebla from his new northern base.

Mexican troops reinforced the town and prepared for the French assault, led by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza. Lorencez led his army to the city of Puebla and launched an assault on May 5, 1862. Despite overwhelming odds, the severely outnumbered and outgunned Mexican soldiers fought valiantly from dawn until dusk, eventually forcing the French troops to retreat. Nearly 500 French soldiers were killed in the combat, compared to fewer than 100 Mexican soldiers.

The remarkable triumph reaffirmed the people's pride and dedication to Mexican heritage, and Cinco de Mayo was declared a holiday. The name was eventually used as a battle cry throughout future conflicts, and it is now a celebration filled with love and respect for those who fought so valiantly to safeguard Mexico. The enormous satisfaction and sense of accomplishment that came from defeating such a prolific colonizer spread through the country, demonstrating to the rest of the globe that Mexicans are fiercely capable of defending themselves.

Why Do Americans Celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

While Cinco de Mayo is a small holiday in Mexico, celebrated mostly in the state of Puebla with military parades and battle reenactments, it has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage in the United States, particularly in areas with considerable Mexican-American populations. This arose in the 1960s, when Chicano activists in the United States expanded awareness of the event, in part because they identified with Indigenous Mexicans' (such as Juárez) victory over European invaders during the Battle of Puebla. Today, celebrations include parades, parties, mariachi music, Mexican folk dancing, and traditional cuisines like tacos and mole poblano.

Can Cinco de Mayo Celebrations in America Be Harmful?

Some of the ways Americans have chosen to commemorate Cinco de Mayo have sparked debate, and deservedly so. The reinforcement of bad stereotypes created by celebrations that include dressing up as Mexicans, using phony accents, and making fun of the heritage while using it as a theme for parties and heavy drinking is extremely troublesome. 

How Can Americans Respectfully Celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

1. Tell the Real Story

Many Americans rush to celebrate with tacos and margaritas, oblivious to the holiday's cultural significance. Before you participate in any celebrations, take a few minutes to learn about the occasion and educate others with whom you will be celebrating.

2. Help Mexican Businesses

While there are many chain restaurants that offer Cinco de Mayo specials, we recommend patronizing local businesses instead: Instead of using the Taco Bell drive-thru, get carry-out from a Mexican-owned business in your region. Whether it's your local Mexican restaurant or a local Mexican pottery store, supporting small business owners not only benefits your local economy, but it also benefits the Mexicans whose culture you like celebrating.

3. Help Mexican Artists and Museums

This occasion is about more than simply food and we sometimes disregard the value of authentic Mexican artisans. If you have a local art gallery, museum, or artist, support those artists and museums that appreciate Mexican history and culture.  If you are unfamiliar with any in your region, a fast internet search might help you locate nearby venues.

4. Mexican Food

It's vital to make sure you're commemorating Mexican heritage rather than just going out for margaritas—but Mexican food is such an important aspect of Mexican culture that it can be one of the best (and tastiest!) ways to do so. Order takeout from a nearby restaurant or make your own at home.

5. Video Games

Here is a novel way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo - video games! Gamers from around the world take part in Cinco de Mayo gaming marathons where they play for hours on end while celebrating with authentic Mexican food.

While there is nothing wrong with participating in Mexican culture and celebrations to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, make sure you are helping the community year-round, not just on one day a year.  This day commemorates the fight for freedom and the defeat of European colonists. Keep it in mind while you rejoice.  Take the initiative to explore how you can support the Mexican culture and communities around you if you wish to honor them. Buying from Mexican-owned businesses and supporting groups that strive for equal rights for the Latin community are two easy things you can do to prepare for your celebrations for Cinco de Mayo. 

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