What You Think You Know About Cinco De Mayo Is Wrong

For many, the fifth day of May means one thing: Cinco de Mayo celebrations. But as it turns out, a lot of the people who get the most into celebrating the holiday are the ones who understand it the least. For one thing, Cinco de Mayo just isn't as big of a deal in Mexico as it is in other countries—it's not even a national holiday. And that leads directly into the second point. It's not, repeat, NOT, Mexican Independence Day. That comes on September 16, and celebrates an event that occurred more than 50 years before the battle that Cinco de Mayo commemorates.

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The Real Reason For The Season

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla, which took place in 1862. But Mexico had been independent from Spain since 1810, so what made this date so important? While the American Civil War was unfolding in the north, Mexico was facing troubles of its own as President Benito Juarez canceled his country's payments to France, Spain, and England—and France wasn't going to let that slide. Emperor Napoleon III (the nephew of the guy with the funny hat) sent the largest army in the world at the time to Mexico's shores, intent on living up to the original Napoleon's dreams of world domination. But the French miscalculated the loyalty of the people of Puebla, and found themselves outmatched by an underdog force of citizen-soldiers. The day of the French retreat rallied the nation and bolstered a sense of national pride. Though the French would launch a more successful invasion in later years, they'd never hold on to their American territories for long. It's easier to just let Mexico be Mexico.

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You'd be hard pressed to find a celebration of Cinco de Mayo in modern Mexico—at least, outside of Puebla, where it's a source of regional pride. So why is it so popular in the United States and elsewhere? That question has two answers. In the 1940s, Cinco de Mayo began to be recognized among Chicano activists as a uniquely Mexican celebration. In the '50s and '60s, the holiday's popularity grew thanks to the U.S.'s Good Neighbor policy, which promoted cultural and commercial exchange between the two countries. But it was a series of marketing events promoted by Miller and Anheuser-Busch in the early 1980s that transformed Cinco de Mayo from a triumph over an invading empire into a triumph over the concept of good taste. What we're saying is, maybe you should leave your novelty salsa-filled sombrero at home this year.

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The Battle Of Puebla's Mariposa Effect

Here's the thing—without the Battle of Puebla, world history might have been very different. In the 1860s, there weren't a lot of countries in the Americas that were very happy about intervention from European powers, so Mexico had an ally—of sorts—in the United States. But as much as Lincoln and other U.S. politicians decried the French invasion, they weren't able to do much to help. After all, they had a Civil War going on, and even if they were to step in to lend Mexico a hand, that could have led France to supporting the slave-holding states. In fact, France was probably inclined to do so anyway—after they dealt with this little Mexican uprising. But because Puebla sent the French army packing, they were never able to give the Union army much trouble. It just goes to show how one battle can change the course of history all over the globe.

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Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Videos About Cinco De Mayo

The Real Story Of Cinco De Mayo

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5 Cinco De Mayo Myths

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Cinco de mayo is not the celebration of Mexico's independence from Spain. 00:19

  2. The modern Cinco de Mayo party did not originate in Mexico—it began in California. 00:55

  3. Tequila should not have a worm in its bottle—mezcal does. 01:34

Cinco De Mayo: You're Probably Doing It Wrong

Written by Curiosity Staff May 2, 2016