Frozen margarita or shaken? Homemade salsa or store-bought? Tacos, nachos or burritos?
Those are a few questions plenty of Americans ask themselves on Cinco de Mayo. A question fewer are probably asking: What is this mysterious holiday and why do we celebrate it?
Most Americans probably know that May 5 festivities stem from Mexican history, where it’s not nearly as widely celebrated. But what does the day actually signify? And how did it become so popular in the U.S.?
The real meaning behind Cinco de Mayo
According to a 2019 poll by Avocados for Mexico, only 22 percent of Americans know the real reason we celebrate May 5. Many people believe the day marks Mexico’s independence day, which, in reality, falls on Sept. 16.
Cinco de Mayo actually marks the Battle of Puebla, a crucial moment in the Franco-Mexican War. Taking place on May 5, 1862, the battle saw a small, ragtag group of Mexican soldiers push back the French infantry, which outnumbered them 3 to 1.
It took five more years for the French to withdraw, but that victory, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, was widely seen as a symbolic turning point that brought more support to Mexico’s resistance force.
The battle took place in Puebla, a city just 80 miles southeast of Mexico City. Today, Cinco de Mayo is still celebrated in the town and its surrounding state (also called Puebla), where the holiday is known as Battle of Puebla Day.
How Cinco de Mayo became popular in the U.S.
So how did a Mexican war victory become a major part of American culture? The answer begins in the 1960s, with Mexican-American activists.
According to the Independent, those early efforts framed the holiday as a symbol of Mexico’s victory over unwanted European invaders. The day’s meaning quickly grew broader, with celebrations springing up in Los Angeles, Houston and eventually the entire nation.
But as Cinco de Mayo took off, its true meaning became vaguer. Thanks to festivals, deals and advertising from beer companies, the holiday quickly transitioned into the massive party it’s known as today.
In fact, David Hayes-Bautista, a UCLA professor who authored the book “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition” told the New York Times in 2018 just how stark he thinks the holiday’s transformation has been.
“I’m trying to get a better sense of how [the true meaning] became so thoroughly lost,” Dr. Hayes-Bautista said. “It’d be like if the Fourth of July were reduced to beer and hot dogs.”
How to make your Cinco a little more authentic
For one, you could acknowledge the holiday’s origins by eating mole poblano, a traditional Mexican dish native to Pueblo that, according to Smithsonian Magazine, might be the region’s most popular Cinco dish. The creamy, spicy-sweet sauce is typically served over chicken or turkey with a side of rice, beans and tortillas, according to the New York Daily News.
Additionally, Dr. Hayes-Bautista told the New York Times that Americans can celebrate by keeping the day’s true history in mind.
“Let’s bring it back to its roots as a civil rights and social justice commemoration,” he said.
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