What Is Cinco De Mayo? Where to Celebrate Mexico's Tradition in America

Cinco De Mayo
Stock Image: The Cinco De Mayo Parade is held to remember the victory the Mexican forces had over the invading French army in the Battle of Puebla on 5 May, 1862. Getty Images

On Sunday, cities across the U.S. will be putting on parades and festivals to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. But what is this Mexican tradition all about?

What Is Cinco De Mayo?

Literally meaning "Fifth of May" in Spanish, Cinco de Mayo is a day of celebration remembering when in 1862 General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated French troops at the Battle of Puebla, which is southeast of Mexico City.

Even though the French did not leave Mexico for another five years, it is considered that this day was a turning point following the French invasion of Mexico in 1861. The battlefield where the victory took place is currently maintained as a park.

Is Cinco De Mayo Mexico's Independence Day?

No. Mexico's Independence Day takes place on September 16 and celebrates the movement to free Mexico from Spanish rule, which began in 1810, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Why Do We Celebrate Cinco De Mayo in America?

According to Professor Margarita Sanchez, Wagner College, Cinco de Mayo is less celebrated in Mexico and more in America. The reason for this resonates loudly to this day.

In an article for Wagner College, the professor explained that the news of the victory in Puebla reached Mexican gold miners working in California, just over a year into the American Civil War. With of repeated Union defeats dampening the spirits of the workers, coupled with the uncertainty of freedom in the Americas, the news of the Puebla victory seemed to be the morale boost the miners needed.

In 1863, Californians held a celebration to commemorate the victory at Puebla. This served as a way to "show support for the struggling Mexican government and, by extension, for the cause of freedom throughout the Americas," explained Sanchez.

Today the message of freedom lives on in Cinco de Mayo celebrations as Mexican immigrants and their descendents settled in the U.S. Sanchez wrote: "For them, Cinco de Mayo symbolizes the desire to keep an identity and a soul." She goes on to say that the day is also a reminder of the contribution Mexican immigrants have made to the U.S.

However, another opinion is that Cinco de Mayo celebrations origniated in America for other reasons. Jeffrey M. Pilcher is a professor of Mexican Cultural History, and the author of the prize-winning book ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity as well as his latest book, Planet Taco.

In a blog he wrote for George Washington University, Pilcher states that while the battle victory was celebrated for the first anniversary, it was later "associated with the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz." When he was overthrown in 1910 the celebration "went out of fashion." In the U.S, it was then primarily celebrated by 'wealthy exiles" who were loyal to Don Profirio, before being adopted by the wider Mexican American community and then by "major corporations" who wanted to target ethnic consumers who had emigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s.

Where Can You Celebrate Cinco De Mayo?

Cinco de Mayo Phoenix Festival

Located in Downtown Phoenix, Arizona, this festival is the "longest-running annual event" in the city. The gates open at 12:00 p.m. MT, hosting a variety of delicious food vendors, exhibitors and on-stage music. There's also Lucha Libre if you're a fan.

Cinco de Mayo Phoenix
Quinton Anez walks from a fast food stand with a giant plate of "piggly wiggleys' otherwise known as curley fries for a snack as he attends the Cinco de Mayo festivitives in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, May 2, 2010. The festival plays host to music headliners War. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Music acts include headliner band War and Los Angeles R&B band, Tierra. General admission tickets start at $10 and kids aged 10 and under are free with paid adult admission.

Cinco de Mayo Celebration at Balboa Park Conservatory

Taking place on May 4, 2019, this event is expanding from the previous year's event to bring music, dance, arts and crafts and family-friendly activities to San Diego.

Featuring colorful horseback riders, traditional dance groups, a fashion show, strolling mariachis, hands-on activity booths for kids, authentic arts and crafts demonstrations by artisans from Mexico, food trucks, and a free concert event featuring Jarabe Mexicano, this event is sure to be a hit for any American.

Cinco de Mayo Denver

This weekend festival started out as a "neighborhood street fair" which outgrew itself and moved to Denver's Civic Center. The Cinco de Mayo Festival in Denver supports nonprofit organization Newsed Community Development Corporation. The charity promotes and develops economic and community programs that raises the income, education, and political levels of Denver residents.

Acts include a range of Latin American music groups, with a free zumba class on the local stage. The community parade starts at 11:00 a.m. on May 4, 2019.

Other popular celebrations

  • Cinco de Mayo, Saint Paul
  • National Cinco De Mayo Festival, Washington, D.C.
  • Cinco de Mayo Parade, New York City
  • Cinco de Mayo Festival, San Francisco
  • Cinco de Mayo, Chicago
  • Cinco de Mayo Market Square, San Antonio