Why is Cinco de Mayo Celebrated in the U.S.?

Cinco de Mayo is the fifth of May. No, literally. It may be glaringly obvious to those who understand the Spanish language, but for those who do not – Cinco de Mayo’s direct translation to English is “fifth of May.” The name of the holiday prevents from any confusion over what day it falls, but there is a substantial amount of confusion over what the holiday is actually celebrating, and why it’s celebrated in America at all.

A common misconception about Cinco de Mayo is that it is Mexico’s Independence day; it is not. In fact, Cinco de Mayo is a fairly normal day like any other for many in the country of its origin. In fact, the day is not even recognized as a federal holiday in Mexico. However, in a certain area of Mexico, the day holds greater significance; that area is the state of Puebla.

On May 5, 1862 during the Second French intervention in Mexico, Mexico claimed an unlikely victory over France, when the French army invaded the city of Puebla. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the French twice outnumbered the small, miscellaneous Mexican army in the battle. The victory, although not greatly strategic in the overall war, boosted the morale of the Mexican army and served as a beacon in the fight for independence against foreign domination – which was eventually won. In the city of Puebla, according to National Geographic, Cinco de Mayo began as a celebration of Mexico’s victory over France in that Battle of Puebla.

Over time, Cinco de Mayo has come to be interpreted as a celebration of the resilience and strength of Mexican culture. It’s celebration in America is widely acknowledged as a testament to the strong influence and deep roots Mexican culture has in the U.S.

Bailey Smith, a college student at West Texas A&M University, said she does not personally celebrate the holiday, but has many friends who do. She recognizes the significance of the day for many Mexican-Americans, and believes it is important to observe one’s heritage. “I think it is important that they feel celebrated.”

Amy Buschman, a small business owner in the Texas Panhandle, said that while Cinco de Mayo is not at the forefront of her mind, she often recognizes the day by giving a nod to Mexican culture and influence by cooking a Mexican inspired meal for her family. “Sadly, to me, in our part of the states, and I think really across the U.S., this holiday is more of an excuse to drink and party versus actually knowing what or why they are celebrating,” she said. “But the fact that a ragtag Mexican army was able to defeat Napoleon is definitely cause for a party.”

While Buschman has zero opposition to people celebrating their home country’s – or ancestor’s home country’s – customs and heritage, she wonders why there are not more cultural holidays similar to Cinco de Mayo widely recognized in the U.S. “I do find it very peculiar how my ancestors from Britain and Scotland didn’t bring or maintain their celebrations of victories when they immigrated to America,” she said. Buschman, being also of German descent, said many German cultural celebrations once recognized by German-Americans in the U.S. were largely stopped in America after German atrocities during the the world wars. She wonders if other previously recognized cultural celebrations have had a similar fate. Aside from St. Patrick’s day, Buschman said she can think of few other widely recognized holidays commemorating specific cultures celebrated in America today. “I don’t know of Italian, Swedish, Russian, French etc., holidays that are nationally recognized in the U.S. Why? Maybe that’s a whole other theory, speculation or phenomenon that probably will never be answered – but I do feel should be given merit and would be an interesting research project.”

In the meantime, Buschman will continue to appreciate and recognize the significant influence of the many resilient cultures that have influenced America so greatly.

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