Cinco de Mayo: Everyone's Most Ambiguous Mexican Holiday

May 8, 2017

Every year at exactly this time (or around this time, depending on your friends’ thirst for tequila), you wander down to your favorite taqueria and/or Taco Bell, to celebrate this vague Mexican holiday. If you’re like us, you basically know two facts about Cinco de Mayo: the date it takes place (May 5th), and that it has something to do with Mexico. So, we decided to do some research. This is a far cry from a doctorate-level Mexican history symposium, but let’s be honest–you’re probably already sipping Patron between quesadilla nibbles, so it’s not like you're ready to handle that level of academic conjecture right now. Anyway, here’s some stuff that you should know as you’re celebrating the fifth of May. La clase está en session.

What really is Cinco de Mayo?

Let’s dispel a myth right off the bat: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day (that's September 16th). Instead, Cinco de Mayo is somewhat of an arbitrary day, marking the underdog victory of the Mexican army against the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1861. The battle itself wasn’t a strategic game-changer, but more or less a major boost of morale and source of Mexican nationalism. Basically, the French decided that while America was distracted with its own civil war, it would be a great idea for them to expand their empire into the hunk of a landmass that was Mexico. So, the French brought 6,000 troops into Veracruz to start taking over, but were met with about 2,000 ragtag Mexican troops that ended up creaming them. The event gave Mexico a much needed confidence boost and sense of nationalism, but was ultimately short-lived. About a year later, 30,000 French troops rolled into Mexico City and were basically like, "OK, this is mine now–thanks." Sad horn.

So wait–if it’s not that important in Mexico, why does Cinco de Mayo still matter?

Great question. Ironically, even though the United States was too busy with its own squabbles to get involved in the French invasion of Mexico, this battle actually had potentially huge implications. Scholars and Colorado-based financial blogs (ahem) speculate that if Mexico hadn’t beaten the French forces on May 5th, 1861, the French may have aided Confederate forces in the American Civil War. Considering the French army was arguably the best in the world at the time, this could have swung favor in the direction of the South–making for a very different outcome for the America as we know it. Call us crazy, but we’re pretty glad the Union won that one.

Apart from the historical implications, there’s plenty of contemporary, relevant importance to be drawn from the battle. While Cinco de Mayo is virtually ignored in most of Mexico, it’s become a symbolic celebration of Chicano culture in America. It actually stems from California, where the holiday has been celebrated since shortly after the battle itself. When Mexican gold miners heard news of the defeat in 1863, they went bonkers, pridefully celebrating their national identity in a foreign land. “But wait, didn’t the battle happen in 1861? And weren’t the French forces already back to successfully conquer Mexico in 1863?” Yes and yes–carrier pigeons and the pony express were a comically inefficient messenger service. Ever since, however, California has become the ambassador of sorts for the Chicano movement, officially birthing the holiday. 

So how does one celebrate Cinco De Mayo "authentically?"

As is typical, we Americans kind of created our own holiday to celebrate a different culture/country, but Cinco de Mayo isn’t just about being as "authentically" Mexican as you can be. Rather, it's a chance for all of us to appreciate the influence that Mexico has had on America. So, how can you celebrate Cinco De Mayo without being insensitive? Have dinner at your favorite Mexican restaurant. Get weird on a slightly more expensive bottle of tequila. Or better yet, try Mezcal–and then eat the worm (do it, we dare you). Whatever you do, just be aware of how much Mexican culture has gracefully integrated itself into American culture, and be thankful to those Mexican tough guys for beating the French back in 1861. Because seriously, we’re very glad the Confederacy didn’t have help, and what’s up with mimes, huh? Class dismissed.