5 Facts About Cinco de Mayo That Might Surprise You

By Leigh TonkinWritten by SUZANNE BARBEZAT

Cinco de Mayo is a holiday filled with many misconceptions. In the United States, it's celebrated every year on May 5 as a way to honor Mexican culture, food, and drink. Still, some people think the holiday represents Mexico's Independence Day (Día de la Independencia de México), which is, instead, celebrated in Mexico on September 16 each year. The origins of Cinco de Mayo, as well as the fact that it is not widely celebrated in Mexico, may come as a surprise to many stateside dwellers. Getting the facts straight will help you better appreciate this holiday rooted deep in regional traditions, and it will also make you sound like a smarty pants while tipping back a margarita on May 5 with a few of your favorite friends.

01 of 05

Cinco De Mayo Is Not Mexican Independence Day

Mexican Independence Day, or Día de la Independencia de México, is celebrated every year in Mexico on September 16, not May 5. This September holiday commemorates the day when Spain withdrew their rule on the native people and recognized Mexico as an independent country in 1821. Prior to that, Mexico (once considered "New Spain") was harshly governed by the Spanish, and the indigenous people were oppressed and stripped of their personal wealth and farmland. In 1810, a catholic priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, called the people of Mexico to rise up against the Spanish in a war that lasted well over a decade.

02 of 05

Cinco De Mayo Celebrates a Mexican Military Victory

In 1862, a contingent of Mexican soldiers led by General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated a larger, better-equipped, and better-trained French military force in the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War. This battle took place in the city of Puebla at the Fort of Guadalupe. Zaragoza commanded an army of 4000 soldiers, as well as a few local Zapotecs and Mixtecs who joined in on the fight (possibly armed only with machetes). They faced the French army double their size. The victory was short-lived, as the French went on to capture both Puebla and Mexico City the following month. However, the May 5 victory was a symbolic win for the Mexican government and provided a morale boost that inspired pride and unity.

03 of 05

Cinco De Mayo Is Not Widely Celebrated in Mexico

Cinco de Mayo is not considered a major holiday in Mexico. Instead, it is simply a day off for students, while banks, offices, and government buildings remain open. In the city of Puebla, however, a low-key parade, a reenactment of the battle, and celebrations with music and food take place each year. These festivities differ greatly from those in the States, where both American and Mexican-American people honor Mexican culture and history while imbibing substantial amounts of tequila and Mexican beer. That said, many alcohol companies have adopted the holiday as a marketing ploy to target a certain demographic of drinkers on a special day.

04 of 05

Puebla Hosts Mexico's Largest Cinco De Mayo Celebration

Cinco de Mayo is considered a day of remembrance throughout all of Mexico, but is not celebrated en grande except for in the city of Puebla, where the 1862 battle originally took place. If you're visiting that region during the holiday, expect a parade, fireworks, and a battle reenactment. The parade, complete with brightly-colored floats, winds its way along Cinco de Mayo Boulevard to the area of the Forts of Guadalupe, just north of the city. Following the battle, the city comes alive with music performances, dancing, and, of course, traditional food.

05 of 05

Los Angeles Hosts the World's Largest Cinco De Mayo Celebration

The first Cinco de Mayo celebrations took place in California in 1863 as a way to honor the brave Mexicans who fought valiantly against the French in the Battle of Puebla. During the same time, the United States was engaged in the Civil War. The Mexican victory on May 5 thwarted French efforts to support the Confederate Army in the States.

Today, Los Angeles, California celebrates Cinco de Mayo—a Mexican-American affair—with huge street fairs, as well as smaller celebrations in different neighborhoods. Olvera Street (one of the oldest streets in Los Angeles), hosts a marketplace complete with mariachi music, traditional Mexican cuisine, and crafts.

Some Cinco de Mayo festivities may be canceled or altered for 2021. Please check with event organizers before attending.

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