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What Is Cinco de Mayo? History and Facts

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Celebrated every May 5, the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo was originally held in  memory of a famous military victory, but over the years has grown into a celebration of Latino heritage and culture.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has put a hold on many of the larger events that would usually take place, the holiday is still being celebrated across the U.S.,  where it is still very popular.  

Below are five facts about this holiday and how it is celebrated.

1. It began because of a famous battle

Cinco de Mayo, which means the 5th of May in Spanish, is often mistaken as a celebration of Mexico's independence — in fact, that holiday is called Grito de Dolores (or El Grito de la Independencia) and is observed every Sept. 16.

Cinco de Mayo in fact marks the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla (May 5, 1862) which took place between the Mexican and the French armies. When in 1861 Mexico stopped making repayments on its debt to France, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte sent French soldiers to seize portions of Mexico and obtain the money owed by force.

At Puebla — approximately 80 miles east of Mexico City — 4,000 or so poorly-equipped Mexican soldiers faced off against around 6,000 French soldiers, who were led by the French Commander Charles Ferdinand Latrille. Mexico's forces, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, managed to kill about 1,000 French soldiers and forced the survivors to retreat to Mexico's Gulf coast.

2. It's a bigger party in the U.S. than in Mexico

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is a regional holiday in the state and city of Puebla, and is mainly celebrated with large parades. Neighboring areas, including Veracruz and Mexico City, also observe the holiday with festivities, however unlike Grito de Dolores the holiday is not commemorated throughout all of Mexico. 

In the U.S., Cinco de Mayo began to become more popular in the 1940s, during the rise of the Chicano (or Mexican American) movement, according to TIME magazine. Today, Cinco de Mayo is actually more widely celebrated north of the border than it is in the south, with  parades, festivals and Cinco de Mayo-themed parties held  throughout the U.S. .

3. The world's largest Cinco de Mayo events were in California

Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Festival de Fiesta Broadway was one of the largest Cinco de Mayo events in the world, attracting as many as 600,000 people with its colorful array of Mexican food, music and dancing. The festival is named after the street it is held on in Los Angeles, Calif., where every year up to 24 square blocks were barricaded off to make room for the event. In 2020 the festival was postponed and then cancelled due to the pandemic, according to the official Facebook page

4. Cinco de Mayo is honored with Chihuahua beauty pageants

Prior to the pandemic, an average of 7,000 people attended the Cinco de Mayo festival in Chandler, Ariz., and although it's not as big as the Festival de Fiesta Broadway, this fiesta has its own unique flair: what it lacks in size, it makes up for in … Chihuahuas. Lots and lots of Chihuahuas .

"This festival is known for its Chihuahuas," Alberto Esparza, an official representative for the city government-sponsored event, told Life's Little Mysteries. "We have a Chihuahua parade, as well as Chihuahua races and pageants."

The race consists of 150 purebred Chihuahuas and takes place on a tiny track set up especially to accommodate the small breed. After the race winners are announced, the "king and queen coronation" takes center stage. The king and queen Chihuahuas are judged based on who is the best dressed, has the best temperament and is the most fashionable. The winners receive a medal and royal cape.

5. The Battle of Puebla is reenacted

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 uniform,  carrying machetes and old-fashioned rifles. Those representing the French soldiers wear knapsacks with wine bottles sticking out of them, and women dressed in long skirts and flowery hats represent the soldaderas, or "female fighters" that cooked and cared for the Mexican army.

Rifle shots ring out and cannon blasts roar during the mock battle, until the Mexican and French generals meet face-to-face for a dramatic sword fight finale — the Mexican general of course emerges victorious. Ordinarily the Battle of Puebla is  also reenacted in several parts of the U.S., including San Diego's Old Town and Heritage Park in San Diego, Calif.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.