Photograph by Jaime Puebla, AP

Read Caption
Mexico city residents reenact a Mexican-French battle during a Cinco de Mayo festival (file photo).

Photograph by Jaime Puebla, AP

Cinco de Mayo History: From Bloodshed to Beer Fest

The history of Cinco de Mayo: from Mexican battle to U.S. bacchanal.

Today fiesta lovers across the United States will gather to celebrate the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo—literally "May 5" in Spanish. And some U.S. partygoers may be surprised to learn that Cinco de Mayo history is short on beer, long on bloodshed.

Cinco de Mayo is often mistaken for Mexican Independence Day, which is actually September 16. On that date in 1810, Mexico declared its independence from Spanish rule. (Related blog post: Cinco de Mayo in any language.)

Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates the Mexican army's unlikely defeat of French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Yet Cinco de Mayo is celebrated only sporadically in Mexico, mainly in the southern town of Puebla (see map of Puebla) and a few larger cities.

In recent years, though, Cinco de Mayo rapidly gained popularity in the U.S., where changing demographics have helped to turn the holiday into a cultural event. Latinos are the largest minority in the U.S. today with 44.3 million people, representing 15 percent of the population, according to a July 2008 U.S. Census Bureau report.

A 1998 study in the Journal of American Culture found that the number of official U.S. celebrations of Cinco de Mayo topped 120.

In 2006 the number of official Cinco de Mayo events was 150 or more, according to José Alamillo, professor of ethnic studies at Washington State University in Pullman, who has studied the cultural impact of Cinco de Mayo north of the border.

Cinco de Mayo is even celebrated in towns across the U.S. that are predominately non-Hispanic, he noted.

Cinco de Mayo, he said, is "definitely becoming more popular than St. Patrick's Day."

(Related blog post: Happy Cinco de Mayo!)

Cinco de Mayo History: Battle of Puebla

In 1862 a Mexican militia led by General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated far better equipped French expeditionary forces on Cinco de Mayo.

Emperor Napoleon III had sent French troops to Mexico to secure dominance over the former Spanish colony and install one of his relatives, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, as its ruler.

Zaragoza won the battle, but the Mexicans ultimately lost the war. Maximilian became Mexico's emperor for three years before the country reclaimed its independence.

Cinco de Mayo: From Brotherly Love to Chicano Power

Cinco de Mayo gained its first popularity in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, partly because of an outpouring of brotherly love, Alamillo says.

"The reason it became more popular [in the U.S. during that time] was in part because of the Good Neighbor policy," he said, referring to a U.S. government effort at the time to reach out to neighboring countries.

"Cinco de Mayo's purpose was to function as a bridge between these two cultures," Alamillo said.

The holiday's popularity really grew in the 1960s, when Mexican-American, or Chicano, activists embraced the holiday as a way to build pride among Mexican Americans, Alamillo says.

The 1862 Cinco de Mayo victory carries a strong anti-imperialist message that resonates with many Mexican Americans, experts say.

"As a community, we are tough and committed, and we believe that we can prevail," said Robert Con Davis-Undiano, a professor of Chicano studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

"That was the attitude of the ragtag Mexican troops who faced and defeated the French in Puebla," he said.

"And Mexican Americans, other Latinos, and literally everyone can feel proud and motivated by that message."

At the same time, Cinco de Mayo was transformed from a strictly nationalist celebration to a bicultural event that expressed the Mexican Americans' identity, Washington State's Alamillo says.

"It allowed for Anglo-Americans to partake in and learn about Mexican culture through Cinco de Mayo," Alamillo said. (Celebrate Cinco de Mayo with pictures of Mexico.)

"Mexican Americans by this point were interested in building this relationship, because they were asking for certain political demands and for more resources for the community.

"It became a really interesting negotiation festival in a lot of ways."

Cinco de Mayo: From Culture to Commercialism

Then came the 1980s, and the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo.

This, Alamillo says, is when the meaning of Cinco de Mayo changed from community self-determination to a drinking holiday for many people.

He says U.S. corporations, particularly those selling alcohol, were eager to tap into the expanding Hispanic population in the U.S.

"It's not just the large number of the Hispanics but also that it's a very young population that is particularly receptive to advertisers," Alamillo said.

"Cinco de Mayo became a vehicle to tap into that market."

Davis-Undiano, the University of Oklahoma professor, still sees Cinco de Mayo as a positive force that can bring Latinos and non-Latinos together, especially at a time when tensions surrounding the illegal immigration debate run high.

"I'm convinced there is a lot of unprocessed anxiety among non-Latinos concerning what changes that will come with a much larger Latino population," he said.

"Cinco de Mayo gives everyone a chance to feel like a single community."

Original version posted May 5, 2006