The Cinco de Mayo holiday, celebrated on May 5th each year, has its origins in a famous Mexican military victory. However, over the years the event has evolved into a celebration of Latin American heritage and culture and is now celebrated across much of North America.
Though the pandemic shut down many of the festivals and parades that had become popular, especially in the US, celebrations are now returning to normal — eating, drinking, dancing and… Chihuahua racing.
Here are five facts about this holiday and how it is celebrated.
It started because of a famous battle
Cinco de Mayo, which means May 5 in Spanish, is often mistaken for the date of Mexico’s independence from Spain. This date, also a holiday, is called Grito de Dolores (or El Grito de la Independencia) and is observed every September 16th.
Cinco de Mayo actually marks the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla (May 5, 1862), which took place between the Mexican and the French armies. In 1861, the Mexican government stopped repaying a large debt to French Emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. To collect the debt, the Emperor sent French soldiers to occupy parts of Mexico – and confiscated the money through land grabs.
In Puebla – about 129 kilometers east of Mexico City – about 4,000 Mexicans faced about 6,000 French soldiers. The French, far better equipped than their enemy, were led by Commander Charles Ferdinand Latrille. That day, the Mexican Army, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, inflicted about 1,000 dead and more wounded, forcing the survivors to retreat to Mexico’s Gulf Coast.
Although the French returned the following year and successfully captured both Puebla and Mexico City, the Mexicans eventually won the war in 1867. The fight against all odds in Puebla on May 5 remains one of Mexico’s most celebrated victories.
It’s a bigger party in the US than in Mexico
In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is a regional holiday in the state and city of Puebla, celebrated primarily with large parades. Neighboring areas, including Veracruz and Mexico City, also mark the holiday with celebrations, but unlike Grito de Dolores, the holiday is not celebrated throughout Mexico.
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo grew in popularity in the 1940s during the rise of the Chicano (or Mexican-American) movement. according to TIME magazine. Today, Cinco de Mayo is actually celebrated more north of the border than down south, with Cinco de Mayo-themed parades, festivals and parties taking place across the United States
The biggest events in the world took place in California
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Festival de Fiesta Broadway was one of the largest Cinco de Mayo events in the world, drawing up to 600,000 people with its colorful offering of Mexican food, music and dance.
The festival is named for the street it takes place on in Los Angeles, California, where up to 24 square blocks have been cordoned off each year to make room for the event.
In 2022, the celebrations are back on the agenda, with events across the country.
It is honored with Chihuahua races and beauty pageants
Before the pandemic, an average of 7,000 people attended the Cinco de Mayo Festival in Chandler, Arizona, and while it’s not as big as the Festival de Fiesta Broadway, this celebration has its own unique flair: what it lacks in size it makes up for Chihuahuas out. Lots and lots of Chihuahuas.
“This festival is known for its Chihuahuas,” Alberto Esparza, an official at the city government-sponsored event, told Life’s Little Mysteries. “We have a Chihuahua parade and Chihuahua races and pageants.”
The race featured 150 purebred Chihuahuas and takes place on a tiny track specially set up for the small breed. After the announcement of the race winners, the “crowning of kings and kings” takes center stage. The king and queen of Chihuahuas are judged on who is best dressed, has the best temperament, and is most stylish. The winners receive a medal and a royal cape.
Since the popularity of Chihuahua-themed Cinco de Mayo celebrations, other similar events have popped up in various states, including Washington DC, where the “Running Chihuahuasis scheduled for May 7, 2022.
The Battle of Puebla is re-enacted annually
Traditionally, the Battle of Puebla is reenacted by the citizens of Puebla, Mexico during their Cinco de Mayo festival. Participants dress up in 19th-century uniforms and carry machetes and vintage rifles.
Those representing the French soldiers carry rucksacks with wine bottles protruding from them, and some dress in the ornate blue and red zouave uniform associated with the French infantry of the period. Additionally, women in long skirts and flowered hats represent the soldaderas, or “women fighters” who cooked for and looked after the Mexican army.
Gunshots and cannon blasts ring out throughout the mock battle until the Mexican and French generals come face to face in a dramatic sword fight finale – the Mexican general, of course, emerging victorious. The Battle of Puebla is also typically re-enacted in several parts of the United States, including Old Town San Diego and Heritage Park in San Diego, California.
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