The True Meaning of Cinco de Mayo

The True Meaning of Cinco de Mayo

What is the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo and what does it mean to you? Cinco de Mayo is celebrated by many people throughout the world, especially in the southwestern US. People like to use this holiday as a homage to Mexican culture by eating tacos, wearing sombreros and drinking Mexican cervezas (think Pacifico). But what does this holiday really mean? Most erroneously believe that this holiday is Mexico’s independence which occurs on September 16th. Cinco de Mayo really commemorates a battle that occurred between the French and Mexican forces on May 5th, 1862. The rag tag Mexican army surprisingly defeated the French, one of the most powerful countries at the time. Let’s learn more about the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo along with authentic Mexican food.

Pacifico, My Favorite Mexican Beer!

During the 1820’s, James Monroe was the president of the United States and many former Spanish colonies including Mexico, won their independence from Spain. These countries fought hard and tirelessly against the Spanish empire to become independent. However, these small countries had little resources, which made them targets to be exploited. Seeing this, Mr. Monroe declared the Monroe Doctrine, which stated that the European powers should leave these fledgling democracies alone.

James Monroe
James Monroe

At the same time, Mexico became independent in 1821 and enjoyed its independence. Being a sovereign nation isn’t easy and Mexico racked up significant debt. Mexico fought three wars including the war against Spain, the Mexican American war in 1848 and lastly their own civil war in 1857. These wars created unsustainable debt (sound familiar?) and its main creditors, France and Great Britain, demanded repayment. These powers, especially France sent troops to collect the debt, but Napoleon III had other plans to make Mexico a French colony. Great Britain wanted no part in this, but France planned its invasion. The battle of Puebla was the first main battle between 6,000 Frenchmen and 2,000 Mexican countrymen. The Mexicans won the battle, but Napoleon III eventually returned with more troops, conquered the country and assigned Arch Duke Maximillian to govern.

Mexico experienced 5 long and hard years under French occupation. To honor their heritage and persist during this time, “Cinco de Mayo” became the uniting slogan to overthrow the French. Mexicans celebrated the battle of Puebla yearly with traditional song, food and dance to focus on conquering the French.

Why didn’t the US enforce the Monroe doctrine during this time? The US was very busy during its own civil war and didn’t have the resources to be the world police. After the end of the civil war in 1865, the US helped intervene on Mexico’s behalf by offering supplies to the troops. Eventually, Mexico won their independence in 1867 and overthrew Duke Maximillian. Maximillian was executed in 1867 and the bullet-torn shirt he worn can be see in Mexico City.

maximillian's shirt
Maximillian’s shirt

Cinco de Mayo is a fun occasion to honor Mexican culture, drink and have fun with friends. Like St. Patrick’s day, it’s considered by many to be a drinking holiday because this holiday isn’t really celebrated in Mexico. However, this holiday is greatly celebrated in the state of Puebla, where the battle took place.

While these ethnic holidays are fun, many people fail to recognize the true culture behind the holidays. Knowing the history of events along with common foods are some ways to learn the authentic culture. For example, real Mexican food is nothing like “Mexican” restaurants in the US. Many of these restaurants have unique variations of tacos (think doritos loco tacos) along with giant burritos. Real Mexican tacos are served on corn tortillas, with cilantro, onions, guacamole and meats ranging from typical carnitas to more unique ones such as Lengua (meaning cow tongue).

Real Mexican food also includes thick stews or caldos like menudo and pozoles. In fact, burritos are Tex-Mex food and are more common in the US, not Mexico. In fact, El Cholo’s restaurant served the first burritos in the US during the 1930’s. In addition, many “Mexican” foods and beverages were actually invented in the US!

Pozole, Real Mexican Food

Well, Cinco de Mayo is more than just a drinking holiday. These drinking holidays can be good opportunities to have fun with friends and family, but it’s nice to learn what you’re celebrating. Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence day, but it honors the one of the first times a fledgling democracy defeated a world power. Also, learning about the true meaning of Cinco de mayo and authentic ethnic food enriches the palate and the mind. What does Cinco de Mayo mean to you and how do you like to celebrate it. Please share below!

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