Cinco de Mayo is often celebrated in the United States with Mexican food and drinks, music, dancing and more. Some cities have parades and cultural performances. However, how Cinco de Mayo is celebrated and even who participates in it has changed over time. Today, the biggest celebrations are held in major cities with significant Mexican-American populations, like Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Houston, Boulder, San Antonio and more.
What Cinco de Mayo Is All About
An important thing to remember if you plan on celebrating Cinco de Mayo is that it’s not the anniversary of Mexico’s independence. That’s celebrated on September 16, the anniversary of the 1810 call by Miguel Hidalgo for independence from Spain, and is comparable to July 4th and the signing of the American Declaration of Independence.
Cinco de Mayo is instead the celebration of the victory of a Mexican Army over invading French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862. France was attempting to force a puppet monarchy on Mexico, and the victory of the smaller, mostly indigenous Mexican army against some of Europe’s toughest soldiers inspired the people of Mexico. While the Battle of Puebla didn’t end the war with France, it was an important symbolic victory.
Today, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the state of Puebla with speeches, parades, reenactments of the Battle of Puebla and even an international mole sauce festival. However, it’s not a national holiday in Mexico, and most of the country doesn’t observe it. In the United States, Cinco de Mayo took off as a holiday when Mexican-American activists used it to celebrate Mexican and indigenous accomplishments during the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. However, it didn’t become widespread until beer and liquor companies used the holiday to promote sales in the 80s.
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is often celebrated with tacos, guacamole, nachos and other Mexican-American foods. Mexican beer, including brands like Dos Equis and Corona, as well as liquor and mixed drinks, such as tequila and margaritas, are also popular. However, you don’t have to stick to these classic foods to have a great Cinco de Mayo if you don’t want to.
Traditional Mexican dishes can add extra flavor to the holiday. Elote — grilled corn on the cob covered in mayonnaise, cotija cheese and spices — can add a street festival feel to a meal, while a bowl of pozole beef soup makes for a great appetizer. Chicken flautas, salsa verde enchiladas or avocado quesadillas can replace ground beef tacos as the main course, or you can make mole poblano for a dish straight out of Puebla itself. Top things off with churros and chocolate sauce for desert, and you have a meal worthy of a great celebration.
Festivities and Decorations
Streamers, napkins and other items featuring the colors of the Mexican flag can be a tasteful way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. While many adults may enjoy Mexican beer and other drinks, a pinata can be a fun way for even kids to get in on the celebration.
Playing traditional Mexican music is an easy way to set the mood for the holiday. While most Americans think of mariachi music when it comes to Cinco de Mayo, there’s also grupera, banda, Norteño, Tejano and more to choose from, so don’t be afraid to mix things up. You can even learn zapateado, the type of dance moves often performed to mariachi music, or watch an expert if you’re feeling bashful.
While sombreros and fake mustaches can come across as disrespectful to Mexican-Americans, buying food or other goods from Mexican-American businesses or learning about Mexican-American history can keep the spirit and intent of the holiday alive in a way that’s fun for everyone. And of course, local parades, festivals, concerts or other events are always a good time.