Why is Cinco de Mayo More Popular in America Than in Mexico?

Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day, and its origins are largely forgotten.

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On Saturday, Americans across the country will gather to celebrate the 150th Cinco de Mayo. Donning sombreros and dancing to mariachi music, revelers will celebrate everything Mexican, and enjoy a shot of tequila—or three. The holiday has become ingrained in the American calendar, and in 2005 Congress passed a resolution calling on the president to recognize the historical significance of the holiday. Contrary to widespread popular belief, May 5th is not actually Mexican Independence Day, and the holiday is primarily celebrated in only one of Mexico's 31 states. So, why is Cinco de Mayo more popular in America than in Mexico?

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The real story of Cinco de Mayo weaves together two concurrent wars—the French intervention in Mexico (also known as The Maximillian Affair) and the American Civil War. On May 5, 1862, defending Mexican forces under Ignacio Zaragoza defeated Napoleon III's French army at Puebla, one of the most important Spanish colonial cities in Mexico. At the time, the French army was considered to be the most powerful fighting force in the world, and the unlikely Mexican victory resulted in a decree by then-Mexican President Benito Juárez that a celebration of the battle be held each year on May 5th. Cinco de Mayo was born, but it was about to be kidnapped.

As the French were making war with Mexico, the American Confederacy was courting Napoleon's help in its conflict with the United States. At the time of the Battle of Puebla, the Confederacy had strung together impressive victories over the Union forces. According to some historians, the French, who made war with Mexico on the pretext of collecting debt, planned to use Mexico as a "base" from which they could help the Confederacy defeat the North, and the Mexican victory at Puebla made the French pause long enough for the Union army to grow stronger and gain momentum. Had the French won at Puebla, some contend, the outcome of the American Civil War could have been much different, as the French and Confederates together could have taken control of the continent from the Mason Dixon line to Guatemela, installing an oligarchical, slave-holding government.

That didn't happen, of course. In the years that followed, Latinos in California and the U.S. Northwest celebrated Cinco de Mayo with parades of people dressed in Civil War uniforms, giving speeches about how the Battle of Puebla fits into the larger narrative of the struggle for abolition.

Since then, the holiday has been transformed, specifically after a wave of Mexican immigration into the United States following the Mexican Civil War. As Mexican immigrants flooded into the American southwest, they joined in the festivities with their fellow Mexican-Americans who were already living in the United States without really knowing the story behind the holiday, and over time the date came to be a showcase of Mexican ethnic identity rather than a celebration of the battle against the invading French forces.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Jody Agius Vallejo, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, explained the Cinco de Mayo phenomenon this way: "It's very similar to how Irish-Americans celebrate St. Patrick's Day," said Vallejo. "One way they can honor their ethnicity is to celebrate this day, even when most don't know why."