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Cinco de Mayo: Mexico's Most Misunderstood Holiday Is Not Mexican Independence Day and Is Mostly Celebrated in the US

First Posted: May 05, 2014 03:23 PM EDT
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Festivals, Celebration

Photo : John Moore / Staff

Brave souls battled it out on Mexican soil: the 8,000-strong French forces stormed Veracruz and moved toward Mexico City, bearing down on the undermanned, poorly equipped Mexican army of 4,500. Somehow, on March 5, 1862 at the Battle of Puebla, the Mexican soldiers were able to claim victory over Emperor Napoleon III's French, but that isn't the date they claimed independence. On May 9, 1862, Mexican President Benito Juárez declared that the anniversary of the battle would be regarded as "Battle of Puebla Day" or "Battle of Cinco de Mayo." Mexican independence had been won more than 20 years earlier.

Cinco de Mayo, a day that's far more celebrated in the United States than in Mexico, is normally saturated with multi-colored Mexican-style decorations, libations, music, food, folkloric dancing -- and poor decision making. In the U.S., Cinco is also meant to celebrate Mexican heritage and pride.

The American celebration of Cinco de Mayo began in Mexican-American communities in the Southwest, West and Northwest during the 1860's, grew in popularity while evolving, and eventually reached populations in Chicago, L.A. and Houston. As Cinco started to come into vogue in the 1940s in America during the rise of the Chicano movement, marketers began to capitalize on the holiday. As of 2006, there were more than 150 official Cinco de Mayo celebrations and events in the U.S.

"It was an American holiday, and we were American," said a 27-year-old Mexican-American woman from San Antonio, Texas, discussing celebrating Cinco de Mayo in her youth. "We celebrated because we assumed that all these things were Mexican because it was Latin in some way. For a long time, we didn't know what things were Mexican, from other things...we didn't know the difference until much later, when [the history] was explained to us."

That said, it must be reiterated that Cinco de Mayo is not a national holiday in Mexico, nor is it the day of independence -- that day, Grito de Dolores, takes place on Sept. 16.

Cinco de Mayo is an official holiday in the State of Puebla, where the battle was held -- but it isn't obligatory. Public schools are closed nationwide in Mexico on May 5 and in the state of Veracruz, employees take off work; however, Cinco de Mayo is essentially ignored in Mexico.

History.com has named a number of little known facts about the "widely misunderstood" holiday, including the fact that the French invaded because Mexico was broke; France lost the battle, but went on to win the war; France arrived with long-range rifles and superior weaponry on all fronts; and the French occupation of Mexico was short-lived.

So, before you submit yourself to drunken endeavors... wearing a Texas-sized sombrero and going to your favorite eatery/bar, which has chosen to embrace a Cinco de Mayo twist while mistakenly serving sangria, remember: Cinco isn't Mexican Independence Day, nor is it a day to drink booze until you've undone yourself or think it's smart to feign a "Mexican" accent.

Also, Happy Cinco!

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