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Cinco de Mayo 101: What It Is and Why Americans Celebrate It

Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday that takes place annually on May 5th. Americans have grown to love this day, which has become synonymous with tacos, mariachi, and Corona. But like many holidays, the meaning behind Cinco de Mayo is so much more than what we fill our stomachs with. Ready to impress your Cinco de Mayo party friends with these tidbits?

Move Over, France

Old drawing of the Battle of Puebla.
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Cinco de Mayo, which translates to “fifth of May” in English, marks the date in 1862 when Mexico’s army won the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War.

Why Was France Battling With Mexico?

Mexican flag on sunny day.
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Lawyer-turned-Mexican-president Benito Juárez got Mexico in a bind, defaulting the country on European debt payments. Spain and Britain worked out a negotiation with Mexico. But Napoleon III of France wanted to jump on a seemingly great opportunity to create an empire out of Mexican land.

A Win for the Underdog

Mexican dancers on a stage.
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All odds were against Mexico. France had 6,000 well-trained troops; Mexico gathered 2,000 men who loved their country. The war started at daybreak. By the time early evening rolled around, France retreated, losing almost 500 soldiers. Mexico lost less than 100.

The Culture Catch

Mexican hat and blanket in a Mexican town.
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Cinco de Mayo isn’t that big of a deal in Mexico. It’s not their independence day (September 16th), nor is it the Day of the Dead (November 1st and 2nd).

Americans Love It

Man grabbing tacos with "You had me at tacos" t-shirt.
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Cinco de Mayo gives Americans an excuse to celebrate. But instead of celebrating Cinco de Mayo as a battle won against the French, many Americans see it as a time to celebrate Mexican culture. And stuff themselves full of delicious Mexican food, of course.

Mexican Americans Love It Too

Mexican man playing a guitar.
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Bars across the United States use Cinco de Mayo as an opportunity to drive revenue. But you’ll encounter an especially lively Cinco de Mayo scene in communities with a large Mexican-American population. If you ask people in these communities if they celebrated Cinco de Mayo that much in their home country, their answer will likely be “no” unless they lived in Puebla.

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo in Puebla

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If you want to experience Cinco de Mayo in Mexico, make it Puebla. The state of Puebla is where Ignacio Zaragoza’s Mexican troops won the Battle of Puebla. To this day, locals celebrate by participating in military parades, watching Battle of Puebla recreations, and eating and drinking themselves silly.

Mexican Life Goes On

Man with a shovel cultivating agave.
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Tourists visiting other parts of Mexico on Cinco de Mayo might be sorely disappointed by what they find. Cinco de Mayo isn’t a federal holiday, so it’s just another day for most Mexicans. However, bars in tourist-oriented areas may host drink specials and Cinco de Mayo-themed parties.

Cinco de Mayo in American School Curriculum

Chalkboard with Spanish words.
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Got kids in school? Don’t be surprised if they come home boasting about their class’ Cinco de Mayo celebration. Teachers often use this holiday as an opportunity to teach their kids about Mexican culture, heritage, and the Spanish language.

Best Cities to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo

Mexican street dancers.
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While you’ll encounter Cinco de Mayo festivals across the States, Houston, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Paul, Los Angeles, and Chicago host some of the biggest festivities.

Building Bridges

Teotihuacan ruins.
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The United States’ infatuation with celebrating Cinco de Mayo is an opportunity for Americans to leave politics at the door. Even though many of us misinterpret this holiday as a time to celebrate Mexican traditions, there’s beauty in embracing our neighboring country’s culture.

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This article was produced and syndicated by A Piece of Travel.

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