If you are looking for a Cinco de Mayo celebration, you’re probably better off heading to the United States. This Mexican holiday celebrates one of the major battles of Mexico’s early independence and yet it has come to represent Mexican-American heritage more than anything. If you are planning on heading to Mexico for an authentic Cinco de Mayo celebration… I’m afraid you are going to be seriously disappointed.
History of Cinco de Mayo
The story behind Cinco de Mayo is pretty simple. The holiday celebrates the Mexican army’s victory over the invading French army on May 5, 1862 in the state of Puebla. The Mexican army was completely outnumbered with much less experienced than the huge invading French army. Despite that, and thanks to a surprise attack, the Mexican army was able to defeat the French army who retreated after losing over 500 men.
While the battle was important, the truth is that Cinco de Mayo is a small, insignificant holiday in most of Mexico. It is not even a national holiday, is only really celebrated in one state, and despite the rumors you might here at Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the US, the holiday is not Mexico’s Independence Day.
The truth is that Cinco de Mayo had potentially more significance in the United States than it did in Mexico. The Cinco de Mayo battle happened at the same time as the US Civil War and the invading French army was very pro-Confederate. There were rumors that if the French were able to completely control Mexico, they would use that advantage to help the South win the US Civil War and create a combined slave-owning territory from Florida all the way down to Mexico City. When the French lost that important battle, it gave Mexican-Americans in the US, who were very pro-Union and fought for the Union army, the hope that not only had the Mexican army helped save Mexico but also helped keep the French out of the US Civil War.
Mexico Celebration vs. USA Celebration
If you do find yourself in Mexico at the beginning of May, you are not completely out of luck. The small state of Puebla, where the famous battle took place holds an annual celebration of the victory. This is pretty much the ONLY place in Mexico to really celebrate the holiday but it is definitely not the same type of celebration you see back in the United States.
The Puebla, Mexico celebration lasts a full month leading up to the event. There are parades throughout the state, music and dance performances, and even live reenactments of the battle. The Puebla State Fair takes place in late April and early May as well and is usually tied into the Cinco de Mayo celebration with special events and performances on the fairgrounds.
In contrast, in the United States, Cinco de Mayo celebrations can be found all over the country, even in communities with zero ties to Mexico. The rebirth of the holiday in America was tied to a number of events, from the early immigration of Mexicans after the Mexican Civil War to the Chicano movement of the 1960 and 1970s to more recently with the holiday being exploited by everyone from beer companies to fast food companies to boost sales among Mexican-American customers.
Despite the commercialization of the holiday, for many Mexican-Americans in the United States, Cinco de Mayo is an important holiday that connects them to their Mexican heritage. In the same way Irish-Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Mexican-Americans use the Cinco de Mayo celebration to remember their roots and also to remember the historic significance Mexican-Americans have played in the US from the Civil War to today.
Couple Travel Tips
- If you are in Mexico but hoping for a US style Cinco de Mayo celebration your best bet is to head to Cancun or another tourist hotspot where you will still be able to find the “endless tequila shots” type of party.
- In Puebla, the Cinco de Mayo celebration includes a large parade along 5 de Mayo Blvd that features local dance schools, marching bands, and decorated floats. The parade route fills up quickly so if you want a good view, come early.
- If you want to really experience the way Mexico celebrates independence and victory, visit for Diez y Seis, the National Independence Day celebration that takes place mid-September.