Cinco De Mayo is often mistakenly referred to as Mexican Independence Day. However, Mexican Independence Day is actually celebrated on September 16th. The official Mexican Independence Day marks the “Cry of Dolores” in 1810, sparking Mexican independence from Spain. Cinco De Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla, which occurred later in 1862. During this fight, the Mexican Army defeated the French Empire under unlikely circumstances. About 500 French soldiers were killed in the battle, compared to less than 100 Mexicans. This defeat brought life and energy to the Mexican resistance movement.
Cinco De Mayo festivities infuse vibrancy into the month of May, promoting awareness of Mexican history, cuisine, and culture. Interestingly, Cinco de Mayo has become almost a bigger deal in the United States and other parts of the world than it is in Mexico. Cinco de Mayo became recognized as a National Holiday in the U.S. in 2005, whereas in Mexico it is mostly celebrated locally within the city of Puebla (where the battle occurred).
Schools in the U.S. display banners and host events to educate students on Mexican heritage. The cuisine of choice for Cinco de Mayo in the States is mainly Tex-Mex favorites, like nachos, tacos, and burritos. Along with political influences aimed at improving the relations between the United States and Mexico, Cinco de Mayo was largely popularized by commercial interests in the food and beverage industry.
Every year, Americans in the U.S. consume 81 million pounds of avocados on May 5th. Corona beer was a major player in turning Cinco de Mayo into the drinking holiday it is today. In 2013, beer sales on Cinco de Mayo surpassed both the Superbowl and Saint Patrick’s Day, hitting $600 million. In 2017, Corona hosted a “Lime Drop” for Cinco de Mayo by lighting up the Times Square Ball in New York City to look like a wedge of lime. Unfortunately, Cinco de Mayo also has a high rate of drinking and driving accidents, turning attention to the importance of celebrating responsibly.
Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Los Angeles are bigger than those held in Puebla, Mexico. Two notable Cinco de Mayo events in the United States are held in Portland, Oregon, and Denver, Colorado. Portland is a sister city to Guadalajara, Mexico, drawing in crowds of over 300,000 people a year. Folkloric dancing and authentic mariachi music set the lively tone of the event. Denver’s Cinco de Mayo festival takes place in Civic Park. It also includes live music that expands to three separate stages, along with 350 vendors and a green chili cook-off.
Although many businesses remain open, public schools throughout Mexico are closed on Cinco de Mayo. Parades and reenactments of the battle are performed in Puebla. Actors dressed as Mexican and French soldiers battle with machetes and shoot fruit out of old gun-powder rifles. An annual event, the Festival Internacional de Puebla, brings together mariachi bands, traditional dancers, and famous artists to honor Mexican culture. Mole Poblano is served, and it’s Puebla’s most famous dish. This thick sauce requires over 12 ingredients, including chocolate and chili peppers, and it’s typically paired with chicken.
Another favorite chicken dish for Cinco de Mayo in Mexico is Chicken Tinga. Served on a plate or in a tortilla, Chicken Tinga is cooked in a tomato-based sauce, seasoned with onions, garlic, adobo, and chipotle peppers. Festival-goers stay hydrated with agua fresca, flavored water with fruits, seeds, and flowers. Hibiscus, lime, and tamarind are popular flavors. Along with lively celebrations in Puebla, a colorful festival is also held in Mexico City. Here, people dress up in traditional Mexican suits, large sombreros, and magnificent, flowing dresses.
Despite its understated observance in Mexico, over time, Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a widespread celebration of Mexican culture, which is now recognized around the world. Beginning with California, Cinco De Mayo eventually spread as far and wide as Canada, Nigeria, France, London, Australia, and Japan.
Exciting ways Cinco de Mayo is celebrated globally include an annual Cinco de Mayo air guitar competition in the Cayman Islands, a Cinco de Mayo skydiving event in Vancouver, and a celebration of Latin American culture in Tokoyo’s Yoyogi Park. However, the further away you travel from the Mexican mainland, the more distant some of these celebrations can seem. For instance, Cinco de Mayo in Japan has been criticized for lack of authenticity, often including American cuisine from North America rather than focusing on traditional Mexican food. Similarly, other than the Coronas on tap, there is a minimal reference to true Mexican heritage at the events on the Cayman Islands either.
Nonetheless, the mere fact that a relatively small battle in Mexico has gained notoriety around the world is a noteworthy accomplishment. The recognition of Cinco de Mayo demonstrates an appreciation for cultures beyond those within our borders. By partaking in the joyous victories achieved by others, we can become one step closer to feeling united with both our close and distant neighbors. After all, everyone loves an underdog story, and Cinco de Mayo is a classic David-and-Goliath tale of triumph.
Arguably one of the best ways to bring people together and experience another culture is through food. This year, many Cinco de Mayo celebrations have been moved indoors or transformed into virtual events. A simple and delicious way to continue honoring this fun holiday at home is by preparing some famous Mexican cuisine.
Start the day with a lightly fried corn tortilla dish, called Chilaquiles. Cut tortillas into quarters and top with red or green salsa, scrambled or fried eggs, pulled chicken, refried beans, cheese, and cream. Another clever use for stale tortillas is making tostadas (fried tortillas) and loading them up with cheese, meats, seafood, or ceviche.
A tasty Mexican side dish similar to the North American favorite is corn on the cob. To make traditional “elote,” start by boiling whole corn on a stick or chop kernels into a cup. Add generous amounts of salt, butter, lime, chili powder, mayonnaise, and sour cream for a savory and filling snack.
Several popular Mexican dishes can be traced way back to Mayan culture. Enchiladas are one example. Ancient people in the Valley of Mexico used to wrap fish in corn tortillas. Another example is pozole, a soup that once played a role in ritual sacrifice. This blend of hominy corn, herbs, and spices is stewed for several hours and then garnished with lime, chili, radish, onion, and lettuce.
Whatever your tastes, enjoy a true Mexican fiesta with music and even dancing. If you have kids, make your own maracas and shake along to the beat. For an adult party, experiment with fresh margaritas Mexican coffee, and mojito recipes. Celebrating Cinco de Mayo is about experiencing culture while also having fun. Putting your own spin on authentic celebrations spreads the joy meant to be shared across cultures.