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Cinco de Mayo: Five Little-Known Facts About This Festive Holiday

By:  Valerie Alva-Ruiz Apr 30, 2013
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Sombrero and maracas

Here in the United States, we take our Cinco de Mayo celebrations seriously – with lots of music, Mexican food, piñatas and, of course, colorful sombreros. But have you ever wondered why we actually celebrate this day? Here are five things you probably didn’t know about Cinco de Mayo.

#1: Party in the U.S.A.

You’re unlikely to find many Mexican citizens celebrating Cinco de Mayo, unless of course we’re talking about the people of Puebla. Although Cinco de Mayo is not traditionally recognized as a holiday in Mexico, some regions, including the state of Puebla, do host celebrations. There, the date is commemorated as El Día de la Batalla de Puebla” (The Day of the Battle of Puebla), which occurred on May 5, 1862. The town hosts parades, battle re-enactments and other festive events marking the Mexican army’s victory over the French.  

#2: It’s Not Mexico’s Independence Day, but Celebrations Are Still in Order

Despite popular opinion, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. The country’s independence is actually celebrated on Sept. 16, the anniversary of Miguel Hidalgo’s (a priest and leader of the Mexican War of Independence) famous “Grito de Dolores” (“Cry of Dolores”). His “grito” was a call to arms that resulted in a declaration of war against the Spanish colonial government in 1810. Sept. 16 is recognized as a federal holiday throughout the country.

Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates the anniversary of General Ignacio Zaragoza leading the poorly supplied, outnumbered Mexican forces to defeat the French forces in the Battle of Puebla. Even though it wasn’t a major strategic win (French forces occupied for years following the battle), this defeat marked an important milestone for the Mexican government, as it showed the country’s strong opposition to foreign domination.    

#3: Chimichangas vs. Chiles Rellenos 

In the U.S., we celebrate Cinco de Mayo by feasting on “typical” Mexican foods. You know the spread: chips, salsa, guacamole, cheese dip, nachos and the like. But did you know that foods like nachos and chimichangas are rarely eaten in Mexico? In fact, many foods we consume here aren’t even on most Mexican menus. Traditional dishes include chiles rellenos (stuffed chiles with meats, cheeses and vegetables), mole, tamales, carnitas, chicharrones and pastel de tres leches. And what could go better with any of these foods than an ice-cold Coca-Cola? I don’t know about you guys, but I’m drooling right now.

#4: Not a Fad

Cinco de Mayo celebrations date back to the 1860s, when Mexicans living in California were opposed to the French rule in Mexico. However, the day’s popularity first soared in the 1960s and 1970s, when Chicano activists began to celebrate the Mexican victory, Mexican culture and heritage. The day also gained popularity because of the Good Neighbor policy, a U.S. government effort to essentially, well, be a “good neighbor.” Today, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston host some of the largest festivals to celebrate the occasion. 

#5: Horse Chihuahua Races…?

Believe it or not (actually, believe it, it’s true), the city of Chandler, Ariz. (as well as several other cities) holds a Cinco de Mayo Celebration Festival featuring the popular Chihuahua races. These contests have strict entry criteria, which makes sense since each pooch is after the title of “King” or “Queen.” And, if you happen to fall for the breed after seeing one of the little guys or gals, an animal rescue is on site with adoption-ready Chihuahuas.