The real history of Cinco de Mayo, and how it’s celebrated around the world

Dancers of the Ballet Folklorico Mexicano before performing at the White House on May 3, 2012.

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Dancers of the Ballet Folklorico Mexicano before performing at the White House on May 3, 2012.
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Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

  • Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day, despite popular belief.
  • May 5 is the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, in which the ill-equipped Mexican army defeated France in 1862.
  • No other country, including Mexico, celebrates the holiday as extensively as the US.

Restaurants and watering holes across the country have been stocking up on tequila and taco fixings in preparation for the thousands of Americans who will queue up for margarita specials on May 5. Many, however, won’t have a clue what exactly they’re drinking to.

Many Americans are under the false impression that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day, which is celebratedSeptember 16. In fact, the originalCinco de Mayo, Spanish for “fifth of May,” came 40 years later. Today, the holiday isa representation of unity and resistanceto foreign intervention for Mexico, who on May 5, 1862, defeated one of the world’s strongest armies at the time.

What really happened on May 5, 1862?

In 1862, Mexicohad defaulted on its foreign debt to several European countries, including France, and was a nation divided by regional differences. France’sNapoleon III saw Mexico’s vulnerability as an opportunityto establish a monarchy in North America and attacked the ill-equipped Mexican army in the small city of Puebla on May 5.

Anticipating the attack, General Ignacio Zaragozacalled on available mento unite and fight for Mexico. After the all-day Battle of Puebla, the French surrendered witha loss of about 500 troops. Mexico lost fewer than 100 of the 2,000 men who showed up. Thus, Cinco de Mayo became a day of Mexican pride.

Although Cinco de Mayo is rooted in Mexican heritage and culture, most don’t realize that it’s a largely American holiday. It’sbarely celebrated south of the border; only in the city of Puebla, where the battle took place. Actually, the alleged largest Cinco de Mayo festival in the world, the Fiesta Broadway, is held in Los Angeles.

Soon afterLatino activists began raising awareness for the holidayduring the ’60s, restaurants, retailers, and liquor brands seized the marketing opportunity.By the ’80s, Cinco de Mayo had become a bonafide drinking holiday with cultural undertones.

Cinco de Mayo as an American holiday

Today, Americansdrink more beeron Cinco de Mayo than Super Bowl Sunday or St. Patrick’s Day. In 2015, they spent$735 millionon beer during the week of Cinco de Mayo. In 2017, Corona became the first brand to earn permission to use the Times Square New Year’s Eve ball, which the beer brandturned into a limeand dropped on May 5.

Even the White House has held Cinco de Mayo fiestas in the past. Former presidentsGeorge W. BushandBarack Obamacommemorated the bond between the US and Mexico on this day with ceremonies in the Rose Garden and East Room.

Cinco de Mayo celebrations areeasy to findin the US – community organizations, bars, and towns across the country have their own celebrations – but you won’t find many donning a sombrero outside of North America. Cinco de Mayo isn’t nearly as popular in other countries as it is in the US.

Australia, however, which often shares a backyard-barbecue-and-beers atmosphere with the US, celebrates the holiday with its ownfiesta in Brisbane.TheCayman Islands,Canada, andMaltahave been known to host parties on May 5, too.