The Real History and Celebrations of Cinco De Mayo

Many folks think of Cinco de Mayo as a date to have a good time while they eat tacos, drink tequila, and vaguely think about Mexico’s independence. But in fact, Cinco de Mayo doesn’t celebrate el Día de la Independencia at all. It celebrates a battle won in the war against the French near the city of Puebla in the mid-nineteenth century.

In this post, we’ll uncover the real history behind Cinco de Mayo and how this holiday actually isn’t all that popular in Mexico. We’ll also take a look at how May 5 became a significant date in the United States and where the best Cinco de Mayo festivals can be found.

The real history behind Cinco de Mayo

You probably already know that Cinco de Mayo means the Fifth of May, but do you really know what Mexicans celebrate on this day? On May 5, Mexicans remember the Batalla de Puebla (Battle of Puebla) fought against the French near the city of Puebla in 1862. To set the record straight, Cinco de Mayo has nothing to do with Mexican Independence Day. Mexico became an autonomous country in 1821, fifty years earlier than the Battle of Puebla!

How did Mexico end up fighting the French? Seventeen years after Mexico’s independence from Spain, France briefly invaded Mexico. Soon after, two more major wars were fought: the Mexican-American War and the Reform War. In the former, Mexico lost over half of its territory, which roughly corresponds to the area today known as the Southwest of the United States.

Since Mexico’s coffers were nearly empty after these wars, President Benito Juárez informed the countries to which Mexico owed money that payments would be on hold for two years. In response, Spain, France, and Britain sent ships to the port city of Veracruz. Mexico negotiated a deal with Spain and Britain, but France remained in Mexico and advanced toward the central area of the country in an effort to create an empire.

Mexico’s army defended the country victoriously against the French in Puebla with the help of General Ignacio Zaragoza despite the superior military strength of France. While France did end up invading Mexico the following year and establishing what is known as the Second Mexican Empire for four short years, Mexico eventually ousted the French for good.

Mexico celebrates the bravery and ingenuity of its soldiers in the first battle of Puebla every May 5. And now you know what Cinco de Mayo is really about! 

Is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in Mexico?

Cinco de Mayo is definitely celebrated in Mexico, yet compared to other Mexican holidays, it’s relatively quiet. You’ll often find businesses closed on unofficial holidays, but banks always stay open on Cinco de Mayo. 

That said, celebrations in Puebla tend to be more enthusiastic for obvious reasons. Along with an elaborate parade that the president attends, the armed forces recreate the Batalla de Puebla with around a hundred soldiers at the original location every year.

Elsewhere in Mexico, the celebrations are more reserved. Children may have a special history lesson at school, and individual cities like Mexico City may hold a civic ceremony and a military parade, which sometimes involve small reenactments of the battle. Civic ceremonies often include a live band, speeches, folkloric dance, and regional costumes.

When is Mexico’s actual Independence Day?

Mexico officially celebrates its Independence Day on September 16. However, the celebrations really occur the night before when Mexicans recall Father Miguel Hidalgo’s Cry of Dolores (Grito de Dolores) that initiated the fight for independence from Spain in 1810. 

One of the most important holidays in Mexico, el Día de la Independencia kicks off at the local zócalo (town square) when the president or state governor cries out ¡Viva Méxicofrom the balcony. Fireworks follow! People celebrate with traditional and flag-colored food (red, white, and green) like chiles en nogada (chilis in cream sauce).

Why is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in the United States?

Unlike celebrations in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo festivities in the United States are abundant and have become a way to celebrate and recognize Mexican-American culture. Mexican-American communities especially are continuing to lead the effort in turning the dial from a day of appropriation to a day of true honor and celebration. 

Mexico and the US have long been intertwined, dating back to the Mexican-American War. Mexico may have lost much of the Southwest—and even part of the Great Plains—to the United States in 1848, but its people and culture remained. Buoyed by an ongoing wave of immigrants from Mexico, you’ll find elements of Mexican-American culture throughout the US—hence the popularity of this day! 

The biggest Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the US

Cinco de Mayo celebrations started in the US in the 1950s and were bolstered by Chicanos in the 60s; however, starting in the 80s, they became more commercialized.

Nowadays, events sponsored by cities and cultural organizations are not unlike the celebrations in Mexico with parades, parties, dancing, and music. They do, however, happen en grande (in a big way). There may be live mariachi music or folkloric dancing in bright costumes, but there don’t tend to be reenactments of the actual battle. 

Although cities like Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and San Antonio—among many others—also have festivals, we’ve highlighted some of the biggest and best here.

Los Angeles

The biggest Cinco de Mayo celebration in the world, Los Angeles’s festival is known as Fiesta Broadway. With mariachi bands, Latino musical súper estrellas (superstars), and Mexican food galore, this festival, sometimes held on the Sunday before May 5, packs in fun for the whole family.


This mountainous city holds a big event for Cinco de Mayo that includes street food, live music, and the Green Chili Bowl Cookoff. An important dish of the Southwest, Green Chili is a spicy dish of beef or chicken and—you guessed it—green salsa, often made with New Mexican hatch chili, a speciality of the region.

San Diego

San Diego’s Cinco de Mayo celebration lasts an entire three days. It all happens in the historic Old Town neighborhood where you can hear live music, watch Baile Folklórico (Folkloric Dance), eat to your heart’s content, and drink some outlandish Mexican cocktails.

Honoring Cinco de Mayo with authentic Puebla food

The culturally curious might want to honor Cinco de Mayo by learning to cook some authentic Mexican cuisine, a tradition so rich and complex it has been recognized by UNESCO. While there are no foods specific to Cinco de Mayo celebrations, a great place to start is with dishes from Puebla where the battle took place. You can easily find recipes online for the following poblano (Pueblan) foods:

  • Pipián: Pipián is an exquisite sauce made of roasted pumpkin seeds called pepitas. These are then blended with tomatillos, chilis, spices, and a little chicken broth. The sauce is served over chicken with a side of white rice. It can also be used to make enchiladas.
  • Mole poblano: There are many kinds of mole in Mexico, but the poblanos (also the name of people from Puebla) lay claim to its invention…at least that’s what they say. This rich sauce, served much like pipián, starts with chilis, nuts and seeds, and spices before adding melted bittersweet chocolate with a touch of thickener like bread and ground raisins–but each cook has her own variation!
  • Mole de caderas: More than a sauce, this is a rich goat stew cooked in a base of tomatoes and/or tomatillos with three chilis and delicate flavorings. These include avocado tree leaves and guajes, a pod that grows on trees in Mexico. You may need to find a Latin market in a large city to buy some of the chilis for this recipe, though you can also source them online! 

Spanish phrases to know for Cinco de Mayo

To really get in the Cinco de Mayo mood, practice a few of these phrases before meeting your friends. They’ll be just as impressed with your Spanish as they are with your food!

  • ¡Viva México! = Long Live Mexico!
  • ¡Viva Puebla! = Long Live Puebla!
  • ¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo! = Happy Cinco de Mayo!
  • El Cinco de Mayo celebra la Batalla de Puebla de 1862 (mil ochocientos sesenta y seis). = Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Battle of Puebla of 1862.
  • ¿Dónde está el desfile= Where’s the parade?
  • ¿Quieres probar el mole? = Do you want to try the mole?
  • Pasa el tequila. = Pass the tequila.

Make the most of every celebration

Many know Cinco de Mayo by its over-the-top celebrations in the U.S and little else about its true history. Congrats to you for deepening your understanding of this holiday and recognizing its true origins—a monumental day of battle in Mexico that staved off the French for a short while. 

To be able to really understand and explain Mexican history, why not start learning Spanish today? Not only can you correct your friends’ misunderstandings about May 5 (in Spanish!), but you can travel with ease on your next trip to a Spanish-speaking country like Mexico. 

With Rosetta Stone, you can learn Spanish in a fun, immersive environment that prepares you for real-life conversations. Unlike other learning methods, ours mirrors the experience you would have if you were dropped into Mexico City. You’ll learn through context with engaging images and audio from native speakers! 

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