Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day, despite popular belief.
May 5 is the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, in which the ill-equipped Mexican army defeated France in 1862.
No other country, including Mexico, celebrates the holiday as extensively as the US.
Restaurants and watering holes across the country have been stocking up on tequila and taco fixings in preparation for the thousands of Americans who will queue up for margarita specials on Cinco de Mayo (May 5). Many, however, won’t have a clue what exactly they’re drinking to.
Many Americans are under the false impression that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day, which is celebrated September 16. In fact, the original Cinco de Mayo, Spanish for “fifth of May,” came 40 years later. Today, the holiday is a representation of unity and resistance to foreign intervention for Mexico, who on May 5, 1862, defeated one of the world’s strongest armies at the time.
What really happened on May 5, 1862?
In 1862, Mexico had defaulted on its foreign debt to several European countries, including France, and was a nation divided by regional differences. France’s Napoleon III saw Mexico’s vulnerability as an opportunity to establish a monarchy in North America and attacked the ill-equipped Mexican army in the small city of Puebla on May 5.
Anticipating the attack, General Ignacio Zaragoza called on available men to unite and fight for Mexico. After the all-day Battle of Puebla, the French surrendered with a loss of about 500 troops. Mexico lost fewer than 100 of the 2,000 men who showed up. Thus, Cinco de Mayo became a day of Mexican pride.
Although Cinco de Mayo is rooted in Mexican heritage and culture, most don’t realize that it’s a largely American holiday. It’s barely celebrated south of the border; only in the city of Puebla, where the battle took place. Actually, the alleged largest Cinco de Mayo festival in the world, the Fiesta Broadway, is held in Los Angeles.
Soon after Latino activists began raising awareness for the holiday during the ’60s, restaurants, retailers, and liquor brands seized the marketing opportunity. By the ’80s, Cinco de Mayo had become a bonafide drinking holiday with cultural undertones.
Cinco de Mayo as an American holiday
Today, Americans drink more beer on Cinco de Mayo than Super Bowl Sunday or St. Patrick’s Day. In 2015, they spent $735 million on beer during the week of Cinco de Mayo. In 2017, Corona became the first brand to earn permission to use the Times Square New Year’s Eve ball, which the beer brand turned into a lime and dropped on May 5.
Even the White House has held Cinco de Mayo fiestas in the past. Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama commemorated the bond between the US and Mexico on this day with ceremonies in the Rose Garden and East Room.
Cinco de Mayo celebrations are easy to find in the US — community organizations, bars, and towns across the country have their own celebrations — but you won’t find many donning a sombrero outside of North America. Cinco de Mayo isn’t nearly as popular in other countries as it is in the US.
Australia, however, which often shares a backyard-barbecue-and-beers atmosphere with the US, celebrates the holiday with its own fiesta in Brisbane. The Cayman Islands, Canada, and Malta have been known to host parties on May 5, too.