Cinco de Mayo, From Mexican Fiesta to Popular U.S. Holiday

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 5, 2006

Today fiesta lovers across the United States will gather to celebrate the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo—literally "May 5" in Spanish.

But do U.S. partygoers really know what they are celebrating?

Cinco de Mayo is often mistaken for Mexican Independence Day, which is actually September 16. On that date in 1810, Mexico declared its independence from Spanish rule.

Today's holiday commemorates the Mexican army's unlikely defeat of French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

The anniversary of the victory is celebrated only sporadically in Mexico, mainly in the southern town of Puebla (see map of Puebla) and a few larger cities.

But Cinco de Mayo is fast gaining popularity in the U.S., where changing demographics are turning the holiday into a cultural event.

Latinos are the largest minority in the U.S. today with more than 40 million people.

A 1998 study in the Journal of American Culture found that the number of official U.S. celebrations of the holiday topped 120.

Today the number is 150 or more, according to José Alamillo, professor of ethnic studies at Washington State University in Pullman, who has studied the cultural impact of the holiday north of the border.

Cinco de Mayo is now celebrated in towns across the U.S. that are predominately non-Hispanic, he notes.

"It's definitely becoming more popular than St. Patrick's Day," he said.

From Brotherly Love to Chicano Power

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