The Real History of Cinco de Mayo and How to Celebrate Respectfully


Essay by Allison Arnold | SideBar by Elyse Wild

Every year on May 5, countless Americans gather, eager to enjoy the spring weather and drink bottomless margaritas, while donning sombreros and fake accents, and really, for no reason at all. 

With all of the excitement surrounding Cinco De Mayo, one would think it’s Mexico’s Independence Day, which many do. On May 5, 1862 Mexico took a shocking victory against France in the Battle of Puebla. While a seemingly small battle in the grand scheme of things, the fact that 2,000 untrained men conquered France’s 6,000 well-equipped soldiers, holds significance in what it symbolized.

While the Battle of Puebla was critical, the majority of Mexicans don’t celebrate it outside of Puebla. Parades and traditional mariachi music commemorate the victory in the town. 

If Mexicans don’t widely celebrate Cinco De Mayo, how did it become such an event in the United States? While many Mexican-American activists engaged in civil rights began to use the underdog victory as a source of pride, it was a 1989 advertising campaign to increase consumption of Corona that propelled Cinco De Mayo into American consumer culture. Today, Cinco De Mayo is an opportunity for businesses to profit off a group of party-goers with mixed intentions. 

I have no problem with people celebrating my heritage, Mexico’s rich culture and delicacies and the extraordinary contributions it has made to the world, but my advice is to at least know what you’re celebrating. The idea that many Americans don’t know what it is they’re getting intoxicated for lends me to believe it’s not about culture at all, but a chance to socialize and, perhaps for us Northerners, escape our winter hiatus to soak up some well-needed vitamin D. 

If you want to celebrate Mexico and its culture, be my guest; but I encourage you to celebrate it by supporting an authentic Mexican business and educating your fellow party-goers on the true history of the day. Wearing traditional Mexican attire or throwing on a sombrero, poncho or fake mustache, is not OK; in fact, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Mexico that even fits that stereotypical depiction. Dressing up as a personified cartoon, to many, seemingly causes no implications, however it is a harmful stereotype that furthers negative depictions and ideas, especially amidst the current political climate. 

Mexico is not just tacos and tequila, and it’s not just headlines and the brunt of ignorance. Mexico is strength and resilience. It’s always a hug, its strangers who become family and its 1,972,550 square kilometers of pure beauty. Just like mole, it’s simple, yet complex. In the end, I don’t care about Cinco De Mayo, drink specials and day parties. I care about my culture. And I care about people knowing the Mexico that I love and the Mexico I call home — because that Mexico is always something to celebrate.

3 Ways to Celebrate Cinco De Mayo

  • Visit a Mexican-Owned EateryWest Michigan is full of authentic Mexican restaurants.  Visit a taqueria (we recommend  Taqueria San Jose, Tacos El Cunado or Taqueria El Rincon Mexico), sitdown restaurant (try El Granjero Mexican Grill, Lindo Mexico or La Huesteca Mexican Restaurant)  or pick up some sweet treats, such as conchas, churros or tres leches cake at a number of local Mexican bakeries (visit Tres Hermanos Bakery, Super Cream Bakery or Panaderia Margo.)
  • Fiesta with LAUP in Holland Each year, during the first weekend in May, the Latin American’s United for Progress (LAUP) throws Fiesta, a celebration of Latin Culture with food, music and dance performances. This year’s celebration takes place from on May 3 and 4 at The Shops at Westshore in Holland. 
  • Drink Tequila — EthicallyThe very nature of tequila production paired with high-demand and lack of oversight results in overworked and poorly paid jimadors, or Mexican farmer who harvests agave plants (the key ingredient in this world famous spirit) and sell it to factories door-to-door. Look for tequila labeled, “Estate Grown” or “Single Estate,” meaning the agave was grown and harvested on the factory’s land most likely by appropriately compensated jimadors. And, instead of ordering a margarita, try a paloma — a drink with made grapefruit juice or soda and lime juice and enjoyed far more in Mexico than the former.

Allison Arnold is a freelance writer and avid adventurer who loves hiking, traveling and trying new foods. She loves writing about food and culture on her blog, For the Love of Tacos.