Everything You Know About Cinco De Mayo Is Dead Wrong

Published May 5, 2016

If you walk into just about any bar in the United States on May 5, chances are that someone in there will be celebrating “Mexican Independence Day.” Not only are these people likely drunk, they’re also wrong.

In the words of Alfonso Sumano, Regional Director of the Mexican Tourism Board in New York, “It is a big celebration of Mexican pride, and we’re OK with that, as long as everyone knows that it’s not related to Mexican independence.”

That said, let’s look at some other Cinco de Mayo facts we all need to get straight:

Cinco De Mayo Poster
Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. Mexico celebrates its independence on September 16th.Wikimedia Commons

Mexican Independence Day Anniversary
Thus, September 16 is a much more universally celebrated holiday than Cinco de Mayo.Wikimedia Commons

Battle Of Puebla
What Cinco de Mayo does celebrate is the victory of the Mexican army over occupying French forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Within and around Puebla, “Cinco de Mayo” is known as El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (the Day of Puebla Battle). Wikimedia Commons

Puebla Carnival Heujotzingo
Because of this, Cinco de Mayo, in Mexico, is most celebrated in Puebla, and is honored more so with battle reenactments and military parades than with tequila. Wikimedia Commons

Benito Juarez President
Benito Juarez (above) was Mexico’s president during the first Cinco de Mayo, leading the country in the years after their historic victory.Wikimedia Commons

Chicano Art Movement
Because of economic hardships from other wars waged, it was Juarez who was forced to suspend repayment of Mexico's debts to France, Spain and England. This caused those countries to launch the invasion that soon led to the Battle at Puebla.Wikimedia Commons

Cinco De Mayo Facts Folklorico
Juarez's order delayed repayment for two years. Spain, Britain and France responded by sending naval forces demanding reimbursement. Wikimedia Commons

Puebla City Mural
Spain and Britain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew forces, but France invaded, seeking repayment and land rights. Wikimedia Commons

El Dia De La Batella De Puebla
A French army of 6,000 faced strong resistence in Peubla where a small, ill-equipped Mexican army of about 2,000 defeated the French and ultimately stopped the invasion.Wikimedia Commons

Ignacio Zaragoza General
Ignacio Zeragosa, who led the Mexican army during the Battle at Puebla, lost about 100 men. The French lost nearly 500.

Emperador Maximillian Mexico
However, the victory of Cinco de Mayo was short-lived. France's Napoleon III sent 30,000 troops one year later and took over Mexico City, installing Maximilian (above) as ruler.Wikimedia Commons

Battle Of Puebla Mexico
Though Abraham Lincoln sympathized with Mexico during the French invasion, he took a neutral stance due to the ongoing conflict of the Civil War.Wikimedia Commons

Maximillian Execution Mexico
But with the help Mexico did receive from the U.S. military, they eventually expelled the French and executed Maximillian in 1867. Wikimedia Commons

Cinco De Mayo Facts Puebla
This ultimate victory, and the Battle at Puebla in particular, restored national pride in a war-torn Mexico. Wikimedia Commons

Napolean Iii French Invasion
If that victory had not come, the consequences could have impacted both the U.S. and Mexico immeasurably. Napoleon III (above) had plans to establish Mexico as a base to support the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. Wikimedia Commons

Cinco De Mayo President Bush
Many historians believe that if it were not for the Mexican victory during the Pueblo Battle, the Confederates would have won the Civil War and changed the fate of the United States forever. Wikimedia Commons

Puebla City Mexico
Despite the historic implications of this battle, Cinco de Mayo is not a federal holiday in most of Mexico. Wikimedia Commons

Baile Folklorico Mexico
In fact, it is, in many ways, a bigger deal in the U.S. Cinco de Mayo’s appropriation by America stems from a time when the U.S. was trying to appeal to — and win over — the increasing Mexican population living in the country. Wikimedia Commons

Chicano Movement Chicago
For example, Franklin Roosevelt likely boosted Cinco de Mayo’s popularity within the United States by enacting the “Good Neighbor Policy” in 1933 to improve relations with Latino countries. Wikimedia Commons

Cry Of Dolores Mexican Independence
Three decades later, the Chicano movement spread Mexican-American pride nationwide, increasing the holiday’s popularity even more. Wikimedia Commons

Cinco De Mayo Celebration
And today, Hispanics make up 17% of the US population (55 million) “making people of Hispanic origin the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority,” according to the US Census. Wikimedia Commons

San Antonio Celebration
Thus it's not exactly surprising that there are now more Cinco de Mayo festivals in the United States than there are in Mexico. Wikimedia Commons

Traditional Dance Mexico
Typically, a Cinco de Mayo festival in the United States consists of live Mariachi music, traditional Mexican food and drink, and plenty of dancing. Flickr

Mariachi Cinco De Mayo Facts
Mariachi music dates back to the early 19th century. The instruments used in a typical Mariachi performance are guitars, bass guitars, viheulas, trumpets, violins, and occassionally a harp. Wikimedia Commons

Mariachi Baile Folklorico
The traditional dance often seen during Cinco de Mayo celebrations is called Baile Folklorico, literally “folkloric dance.” There are variations, but in the Jalisco style, women wear bright, ruffled skirts and men wear charro (cowboy) clothing and sombreros. Flickr

Young  Cinco De Mayo
Cinco de Mayo's present association with binge drinking is the result of savvy ad campaigns. Mexican migration really took off in the 1980s and brought millions of young Mexicans into the United States. To many American alcohol corporations, this meant a huge business opportunity.Flickr

Agave Tequila Production
Tequila shots are often the drink of choice for Cinco de Mayo, but quality tequila is made from 100% agave nectar, and aged tequilas known as anejo or reposado are intended to be sipped slowly and savored, not consumed as quickly as possible, as it so often is by Americans on Cinco de Mayo. Wikimedia Commons

Agave Tequila Collection
In fact, the United States consumes twice as much tequila as Mexico (tequila's country of origin).Wikimedia Commons

Mole Poblano Sauce
On the food side of things, despite what Americans think, tacos and burritos aren’t the preferred choice for a traditional Cinco de Mayo celebration. Rather, enchiladas, tamales, and mole poblano make up more traditional dishes as they require more hands--and thus more family interaction--to execute successfully.Wikimedia Commons

Avocados Guacamole Dish
According to the California Avocado Commission, more than 87 million pounds of avocados (175 million individual avocados) are consumed on Cinco de Mayo every year. Flickr

Folklorico Dancers Mexico
The largest Cinco de Mayo festival is in Los Angeles. It is called Fiesta Broadway and draws in hundreds of thousands of people every year. Wikimedia Commons

Chihuahua Cinco De Mayo
In Arizona, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated throughout Phoenix and surrounding cities. In Chandler, Cinco de Mayo festivities include an annual Chihuahua race. Flickr

Group Folklorico Performance
Multiple cities in the United States celebrate Cinco de Mayo with weekend-long festivals, including Denver, Chicago, Portland and San Diego. Wikimedia Commons

Skydiving Cinco De Mayo
At the Abottsford Skydiving Center in Vancouver, Canada, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated a little differently: skydiving, music, and food make up the festivities, but not necessarily in that order. Pixabay

Large Mariachi Group
In the Cayman Islands, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated not with a Mariachi, but with an annual air guitar competition instead.Wikimedia Commons

Next, check out 15 of the most colorful photos from some of the best Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

Briana Jones
Briana Jones is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and artist roaming the hot sands of the southwest. She enjoys the strange and unusual, and green tea.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Jones, Briana. "Everything You Know About Cinco De Mayo Is Dead Wrong." AllThatsInteresting.com, May 5, 2016, https://allthatsinteresting.com/cinco-de-mayo-facts. Accessed June 13, 2024.