Cinco de Mayo

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Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo, May 5, the anniversary of Mexico's victory over France in 1862 in the Battle of Puebla, in which Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza's small, ill-equipped Mexican forces defeated a much larger French force; the French, however, continued to occupy Mexico for several more years. Although still observed in Puebla state, the holiday is more popular in the United States than Mexico, and has become a celebration of Mexican-American culture. It is sometimes mistaken by non-Mexicans for Mexico's independence day, which is September 16.
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Cinco de Mayo

Type of Holiday: Historic
Date of Observation: May 5
Where Celebrated: Mexico and the United States
Symbols and Customs: Ballet Folklórico, Battle Reenactments, Mariachi Music, Mexican Food, Parades ORIGINS

Cinco de Mayo means "the fifth of May." It commemorates the Battle of Puebla, an important event in the fight for Mexican independence. In this battle, a badly outnumbered band of Mexicans fought off the French army, which at that time was one of the most highly trained armies in Europe. For Mexicans and Mexican Americans, Cinco de Mayo represents the courage, resourcefulness, and determination of the Mexican people. It also symbolizes the thrill of an underdog victory against a mighty enemy.

The Battle of Puebla took place on May 5,1862. Mexico had gained its independence from Spain about forty years earlier, but was not a strong country at that time. The Mexican government owed money to France, England, and Spain. The French, under Napoleon III, decided to invade Mexico and take over the government. Napoleon III wanted to re-establish a strong French presence in North America. Moreover, he reasoned that the United States wouldn't interfere, because it was embroiled in its own civil war at that time.

When the French troops reached the town of Puebla, they were met by a rag-tag Mexican army led by General Ignacio Zaragoza and Colonel Porfirio Díaz (who later became president of Mexico). The Mexicans numbered around 4,000 men. Their ranks included regular soldiers as well as Mexican farmers armed with farm tools, cowboys, and Zapotec and other Indians. The French army was much larger and consisted of well-trained, professional soldiers, both on horseback and on foot. As the battle began, the French were confident of victory.

General Zaragoza's clever battle plans turned the tide of battle in favor of the Mexicans, however. He sent his cavalry (soldiers on horseback) to attack the French from the side. The French cavalry responded by abandoning the center of the battle and moving to the side to engage the Mexican horsemen. This gave Zaragoza the moment he had been looking for. He released a stampeding herd of cattle right into the center of the French troops. The cattle scattered the French soldiers, thus conferring victory to the Mexican army.

Although the Mexicans won the battle, they did not win the war. Two years later, the French succeeded in taking over Mexico and in crowning Ferdinand Maximilian von Hapsburg emperor of Mexico. For the French, however, victory was short-lived. The Mexican people never accepted the new government and succeeded in ousting Maximilian and his government in 1867. Throughout the time of French rule, the amazing victory at the Battle of Puebla inspired the Mexican people to resist the foreign occupation. People felt hope for the future and pride in their Mexican identity as they sang corridos, or folk songs, retelling the story of the Battle of Puebla. As a historic holiday, Cinco de Mayo commemorates a significant historical event. People throughout the world remember significant events in their histories. Often, these are events that are important for an entire nation and become widely observed. The marking of such anniversaries serves not only to honor the values represented by the person or event commemorated, but also to strengthen and reinforce communal bonds of national, cultural, or ethnic identity. Victorious, joyful, and traumatic events are remembered through historic holidays. The commemorative expression reflects the original event through festive celebration or solemn ritual. Reenactments are common activities at historical holiday and festival gatherings, seeking to bring the past alive in the present.

Cinco de Mayo is widely celebrated in the United States-perhaps even more celebrated than in Mexico itself. Social commentators have proposed several reasons for this. Some suggest that because Mexican Americans are a minority within the United States, they feel more strongly aligned with the "clever underdog" theme of Cinco de Mayo than do the people living in Mexico. Historians also point out that Cinco de Mayo commemorations have a long history in the U.S. For example, the Mexican community in San Francisco held its first Cinco de Mayo celebration in 1863, a year after the battle took place. Although the date is honored throughout Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is most widely celebrated in the state of Puebla and in Mexico City. In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated throughout the southwestern states, where many Mexican Americans live, and in large cities that have significant populations of Mexican Americans. Many celebrations include BALLET FOLKLÓRICO , M EXICAN FOOD , M ARIACHI MUSIC , and PARADES .

The strong nationalistic themes of the holiday have led some people to confuse Cinco de Mayo with Mexican Independence Day. In fact, Mexico celebrates its independence day on September 16. The fight for Mexican independence from Spain began on this day in 1810.


Ballet Folklórico

Many Cinco de Mayo celebrations feature displays of Mexican folk-dancing, or ballet folklórico. Each state in Mexico preserves a style of dance and regional costume typical to the area. Mexican folk-dancing troupes preserve this diversity. Often adults pass on Mexican cultural heritage by teaching the young people in their community the dances of their forebearers. Dressed in the colorful traditional folk costume of their ancestral homeland, bands of young folk dancers perform these dances at Cinco de Mayo celebrations and other festive occasions.

Battle Reenactments

In Mexico, some towns celebrate by hosting large or small reenactments of the Battle of Puebla. The Mexican government plays a role in sponsoring certain largescale reenactments.

Mariachi Music

In the United States, many Cinco de Mayo festivals feature performances of a popular kind of Mexican music called mariachi. A mariachi group usually includes at least five instruments: a violin, trumpet, vihuela (a five-stringed guitar), and a guitarrón (a large guitar-shaped string bass). Nevertheless, mariachi groups can be as small as three and as large as twenty. Mariachi groups sing songs about romantic love, home and country, and other universal themes.

Mariachi music developed in the nineteenth century, alongside Mexico's long fight for independence. This popular music has become a symbol of Mexican identity. It was first performed by wandering folk musicians dressed in simple peasant garb, such as ponchos, simple muslin pants, and sandals. Nowadays professional and semi-professional musicians dedicate themselves to this art form. When performing, Mariachi groups usually wear outfits referred to as a traje charro, or "cowboy suit." The cowboy suit consists of a broad-brimmed hat, tight-fitting trousers embellished with silver studs, a bolero jacket, and a scarf-like tie. This outfit represents the garb of a well-to-do horseman in Mexico in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Mexican Food

Many U.S. towns and cities host street fairs for Cinco de Mayo. At these fairs street vendors sell typically Mexican foods, such as tacos, guacamole, salsa, churros, and tamales. At some fairs cooking or tasting contests take place. A number of different towns and cities hold jalapeño eating contests on Cinco de Mayo. Good-humored crowds gather to watch those who can gobble up the fiery hot peppers without wincing.

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo celebrations often pay special tribute to the region of Puebla. Foods from Puebla, such as molé poblano, may be served in honor of the occasion. Molé is a thick sauce made from tomatoes, onions, spices, unsweetened chocolate, and ground nuts. It is usually served with meat or beans.


Parades often play an important role in Cinco de Mayo celebrations. Most feature marching bands or other forms of music. Some marchers wear military uniforms as a way of honoring those who lost their lives fighting for Mexican independence in the Battle of Puebla. Others wear traditional Mexican dress. Some marchers proudly carry Mexican flags. Patriotic parade watchers sometimes greet this spectacle with the cry, "Viva Mexico," which means, "long live Mexico."


Gnojewski, Carol. Cinco de Mayo. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2002. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. "Mariachi Festivities … for Cinco de Mayo and Almost Anytime." Sunset. May, 1990. Menard, Valerie. The Latino Holiday Book. New York: Marlow and Company, 2000.


Inside Mexico

Mexico Connect

Mexico Tourism Board
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Cinco de Mayo

May 5
Cinco de Mayo or the Fifth of May is a national holiday in Mexico commemorating the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, in which Mexican troops under General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated the invading French forces of Napoleon III. Although the battle itself represented only a temporary setback for the French, the Mexicans' victory against overwhelming odds gave them the confidence they needed to persevere until finally triumphing on April 2, 1867.
The anniversary of this event is celebrated not only in Mexico but in many American communities with large Mexican-American populations—especially in the southwestern states of Texas, Arizona, and southern California. The events include parades, patriotic speeches, bullfights, barbecues, and beauty contests. Olvera Street in Los Angeles is particularly known for its Cinco de Mayo celebration.
Mexico Tourism Board
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University of California
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AmerBkDays-2000, p. 343
AnnivHol-2000, p. 77
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 1065
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 329
HolSymbols-2009, p. 152
OxYear-1999, p. 198
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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