Why Do Americans Celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

Updated May 2, 2017

Given today’s political climate, and the rise of cultural appropriation sensitivities in the United States, this Cinco de Mayo post seems more appropriate now than when I wrote it in 2009. A few points to remember as this pseudo-holiday approaches:

  1. It is not Mexico’s independence day.
  2. It is not a legal holiday in Mexico.
  3. Celebrations take place in Puebla and Veracruz.
  4. Mexicans go on about their day as usual on Cinco de Mayo.
  5. Americans will drink and eat Mexican food wearing sombreros, zarapes and fake mustaches. Please don’t.
  6. The Cinco de Mayo observance in the U.S.A. has more in common with May the 4th Be With You and Revenge of the 5th, than any other celebration.

Now, this…

Hopefully you ate enchiladas ’till your heart’s content and only had a couple of margaritas today. Cinco de Mayo, though very remotely connected to U.S. history, has become a commercialized made-up holiday for many in the Unites States. As a Mexican-born and raised bi-cultural U.S. Citizen (that’s a mouth full!) I’m still asking myself why this is so.

Unlike the parties, food, and music which have typified Cinco de Mayo in the U.S.A., Mexico does not celebrate the glorious victory at the Battle of Puebla where only 4,000 or 5,000 badly-armed,  poorly-uniformed Mexican indians crushed the already couture-savvy French battalion of 8,000 men in 1862. 

So why, then, is this day so revered in the neighboring country sharing a 2,000 mile long semi-militarized border with Mexico?

First, let’s be clear, Cinco de Mayo is not Independence Day. Independence day is September 16th, and this is celebrated in Mexico much like the 4th of July in the United States, with fireworks and displays of military power. (Read a very simpatico summary of both events at Viva Cinco de Mayo). I have noticed that with time, and probably due to the increase in the number of Mexican people living in the U.S., this quasi-holiday’s miss-information is finally getting corrected across the country. Today, probably like every year, a couple of online publications (The Huffington Post and MTV), offered explanations for the revelry on this side of the border.

In short, Cinco de Mayo celebrates the “Batalla de Puebla”, which is significant to Mexico because it demonstrated that it’s people were capable of uniting and repudiating an unwanted foreign government. When Mexico defaulted on it’s debts to England, Spain, and France, they invaded Mexico. Later, England and Spain retreated, but not the French. The inhabitants of the southern country came together to unquestionably squash Napoleon III who intended to rule their territory. The U.S. was not in a position to help because the country was in the middle of it’s own civil turmoil in 1862. But Congresse issued a stern warning to the foreign monarchy that they were against such rule near the U.S.A. By defeating the French on their own, Mexico sent a message to those across the Atlantic that they should not interfere with the young nation’s sovereignty.

Beyond this, I can’t seem to find an explanation for the rousing fiestas that go on in many places here. Some say it’s just another excuse to party, or a marketing ploy by beer companies like AB InBev (who own Corona and Budwiser among others), to get us to go out to eat and drink. These ideas are not too far fetched since we’ve also dominated the December holidays with over-commercialization.

Perhaps, one of the reasons for celebrating this otherwise low-key Mexican holiday is simply to add it to the long list of other countries who also celebrate holidays in the United States: St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras, Chinese New Year, etc.

Which brings me to the implied connection of the May Mexican celebration to the United States: the French. 

I do find the French-American-Mexican connection to this fake holiday ironic given the current state of the US-Mexico border, and that the celebration over the defeat of the French by our neighbors to the south should be rooted on the north side of the fence.

I guess it’s a good thing to have something in common — friends usually do — and that’s the French! Freedom Fries anyone?

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!  And as my countrymen would say, cheers!


  1. Anonymous says:

    Why??? Well, my theory is that it's easier for non-Spanish speaking people to pronounce “Cinco de Mayo” then “Dieciseis de Septiembre”.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Because of our sophisticated lack of interest in historical facts, all we as “mercans” seem to embrace it as “Cinco de Drinko”

    • Suzette Valle says:

      Ha! This is the closest we’ll likely ever get to explaining why this happens in the USA!

  3. Jenn says:

    We actually celebrate Cinco de Mayo at work and I always thought it was funny. It’s another marketing holiday and we easily forget the history!

    • Suzette Valle says:

      So, it’s a marketing holiday? I would guess that’s about as logical an explanation as any.

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