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Cinco de Mayo — That’s Mexican Independence Day, right?

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Folkloric dancer at celebration in Tequila, Jalisco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day, right?

In much of the world, there exists a misconception that May 5 is some sort of huge holiday in Mexico.

This notion is reinforced by movies, TV shows, and advertisements depicting large celebrations full of piñatas, ponchos, tequila, and of course, Corona beer. 

Cinco de Mayo is in fact not our independence day, but rather a commemoration of the Battle of Puebla that took place on May 5, 1862. The battle took place near Puebla City against an invading French Army and ended in a victory for the Mexican Army over the much better-equipped foreign forces.

Downtown in Puebla de Los Angeles, not far from where the battle took place. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The victory is observed every year, but festivities are primarily held in the Mexican state of Puebla, where the battle actually occurred. For the rest of the country, it is basically just a normal working day with no time off or special festivities. 

The defeat of the French was indeed a big deal for Mexico and the holiday certainly has its place. It’s just not what our foreign friends think it is. 

So if it’s not Mexican Independence Day or even a major holiday, how exactly was this festive image of the Cinco de Mayo created?

The first recorded instance of a Cinco de Mayo celebration dates back to the 1860s in California, well over a decade after the territory was annexed by the United States. So from the very beginning, the celebration took on an American flavor. 

Over a century later, starting sometime in the late 1970s, Cinco de Mayo began to be widely celebrated in the United States. 

So why would Americans all of a sudden begin to observe Mexico’s victory over the forces of Napoleon III? To put it succinctly, because of beer — Corona beer to be precise.

A Corona beer billboard in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Courtesy

The branding division of the Corona beer company in the United States saw in Cinco de Mayo a great opportunity to create a new festivity. And why not, if it sells more beer?

A huge marketing campaign followed, and ever since the Corona brand and the fifth day of the fifth month of the year have become inexorably linked. 

Over time Cinco de Mayo began to be celebrated in other countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany. One day in Oslo, having not been aware of the date, I was greeted by a Norwegian colleague with an earnest “happy i=Independence Day Carlos, it’s Cinco de Mayo!” It’s the thought that counts, I thought to myself as I let out a chuckle. 

It is ironic that Cinco de Mayo festivities have so little to do with Mexico. Even the food traditionally served during parties is more Tex Mex than Mexican. 

Nachos and hard-shell ground beef tacos with sour cream dominate the festivities, while traditional dishes from Puebla such as Chiles en Nogada or Mole are nowhere to be found. But then again there is usually plenty of Corona beer and of course tequila — and there is nothing more Mexican than that.

Mexicans can’t help but roll their eyes at the sight of gringos wearing ponchos and sombreros while they talk about how much they love the festivities and that one time they went to Tijuana, Cancún, or Acapulco. But then again, we Mexicans do love a good party and will likely show up for Cinco de Mayo parties if invited.

In the end, Cinco de Mayo is a fun excuse to drink some beer and eat some guacamole, and there is nothing wrong with that. 

But next year, may I suggest celebrating Sept. 16 — Mexico’s actual independence day — with a hardy bowl of traditional pozole rojo or verde. And yes, tequila and beer are always welcome, whether they be for a pseudo-holiday or not. 

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