Celebrating Cinco de Mayo: Everything You Need To Know

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo: Everything You Need To Know

Cinco de Mayo is a commemorative holiday celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, which took place in 1862. The celebration started in Mexico and has since spread to parts of the United States. It’s a positive thing that people recognize and honor such a significant cultural holiday outside of Mexico. But many lack an understanding of its cultural significance, as is evident when you think about how often people believe that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s day of independence. Allow us to teach you everything you need to know about celebrating Cinco de Mayo to make this year a far more authentic experience.

Before the Battle

First, a little history lesson is necessary. In 1861, Benito Juárez was elected as the president of Mexico, inheriting the financial crisis the nation was facing at the time. Mexico had been in financial ruin for years due to internal strife and was in severe debt to multiple European governments after taking many loans from them. Because Mexico couldn’t pay back these loans, President Benito Juárez had no choice but to default on the debt payments.

In response, Spain, Britain, and France mobilized their naval units into Veracruz, Mexico to demand repayment. Luckily, Mexico was able to negotiate with Britain and Spain, and they soon withdrew their forces before the situation elevated further. France, on the other hand, saw this as an opportunity.

Under the rule of Napoleon III, France decided to use the situation to try and rekindle their declining empire by usurping Mexican territory. In late 1861, a French fleet invaded Veracruz and drove President Benito Juárez and his cabinet into a retreat from their seat of government.

The Battle of Puebla

Emboldened by the successful invasion of Veracruz, the French were confident that their victory would be swift. With 6,000 troops under the command of General Charles Latrille de Lorencez, the French set their sights on Puebla de Los Angeles—a small town located in East-central Mexico. President Juárez had relocated to Northern Mexico by that time, and in response to the invading army, he mustered a militia of 2,000 troops to meet the French at Puebla.

Outnumbered, short on supplies, and lacking the same professional training the French troops received, the Mexican soldiers had a significant disadvantage. Still, General Ignacio Zaragoza led these soldiers to Puebla and fortified the town in anticipation of the French’s inevitable attack. Finally, on May 5, 1862, the French army arrived with heavy artillery and began their assault on the town.

How Long Was the Battle?

The battle only lasted from dawn till dusk of that day. When the dust finally settled, the French retreated with 500 casualties while the Mexican forces emerged triumphant with less than 100 casualties. Although Puebla didn’t have major strategic value, the battle there was significant as a symbolic victory that restored faith in the Mexican government and rallied more people to join the resistant movement.

The war would continue until the United States granted Mexico military and political support in 1867. The US was able to do so because it had finally resolved its civil war between the North and South. Thanks to the bolstered might of the Mexican-US forces and the political pressure the United States exerted, France withdrew its forces. The war subsequently came to an official end when the Mexican forces captured and later executed Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian, whom Napoleon III had appointed emperor of Mexico in 1864.

Cinco de Mayo in Mexico

As one might expect, people primarily observe Cinco de Mayo in Puebla, where General Zaragoza’s victory took place. However, you can still find celebrations of Cinco de Mayo throughout the rest of the country. Traditionally, Cinco de Mayo includes military parades and recreations of the Battle of Puebla. Additionally, people hold many other festive events that celebrate the Mexican culture. For instance, there is a sharing of regional dishes between the country’s states.

Cinco de Mayo isn’t a federal holiday, however. So, for some parts of Mexico, May 5 is simply a normal day like any other.

Cinco de Mayo in the US

As Cinco de Mayo has spread into the United States, the actual battle for Puebla has faded into the background, and the holiday has come to focus on simply celebrating Mexican culture and heritage. While the festivities primarily take place in parts of the US with large Mexican-American populations, awareness of Cinco de Mayo is commonplace throughout the country thanks to the work of Chicano activists in the 1960s.

While there are no recreations of the battle, common festivities in Latino communities include parades, parties, mariachi music, Mexican folk dancing, and of course, sharing traditional foods. If you want to find the largest Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States, head to major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.

Preparing Your Celebration

So now that you have a grasp of the history, how should you prepare for your celebration of Cinco de Mayo? Well, as we’ve alluded, food plays a large role in Mexican culture. The sharing of different regional dishes is an especially important way that food adds to the experience. As a result, there are no specific foods traditional to the holiday, and you shouldn’t be afraid to put your own spin on common recipes. You can use staples such as salsa, mole, and tortillas to creatively add new flavor, texture, or heat to any dish. For example, rather than adding traditional salsa to a dish, you could use morita chile sauce to achieve a deep, smokey, and nutty flavor.

Furthermore, Cinco de Mayo is best when you experience it with friends and family. While that may be difficult this year because of COVID-19, food can still serve as a way to bridge that gap. Sending portions of your specially prepared dishes as thoughtful gifts can help you initiate those new to Cinco de Mayo into the festivities and culture of the Mexican people. As long as you have a reverence for the culture, an understanding of the battle of Puebla, and some good company, you’ll have everything you need to know about celebrating Cinco de Mayo.

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo: Everything You Need To Know