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17 Surprising Cinco de Mayo Facts You Never Knew

Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexican culture and heritage. But here's what you might not know about Cinco de Mayo.

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Cinco de Mayo basics

Cinco de Mayo means, yep, the fifth of May. As you may have surmised, we celebrate it on May 5. This holiday is so beloved in the United States (the celebrations are bigger here than it is in Mexico), that the celebrations are still going to happen, despite the pandemic. However, due to most restaurants and bars being closed, and public gatherings banned, the celebrations will look different than what you're used to. This is the true story of the history of Cinco de Mayo.

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What Cinco de Mayo commemorates

Officially, Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexico's May 5, 1862, victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War (1861-1867). The war began when the French invaded Mexico—at Veracruz—in 1861. France's intention was to establish dominance in Mexico while the United States was preoccupied with the Civil War and then to provide military support to the Confederate cause.

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What Cinco de Mayo is not

Cinco de Mayo isn't a national holiday in Mexico, although it is celebrated in certain Mexican municipalities, most notably Puebla and Veracruz. Nor is Cinco de Mayo the equivalent of Mexican Independence Day. In fact, despite the Mexican victory at Puebla on May 5, 1862, the French continued to occupy Mexico for five more years. Here are some more history lessons your teacher lied to you about.

Siege of Puebla.PHAS/Getty Images

But it was a national holiday in Mexico in 1862

There still was a period of time when Cinco de Mayo was a national holiday in Mexico, too. President Benito Juárez declared the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla a national holiday on May 9, 1862. Rather than calling it "Cinco de Mayo", the holiday was called "Battle of Puebla Day" or "Battle of Cinco de Mayo."


The first Cinco de Mayo celebration

Historians believe that the first Cinco de Mayo celebrations were held by Mexican-Americans living in California during the American Civil War. It was not so much "celebrations" as political rallies held for the purpose of generating support for Mexico during the Franco-Mexican War, according to this report by Time on how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in a historically accurate way.

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The 1930s-1960s: Cinco de Mayo and the Good Neighbor Policy

Although Cinco de Mayo was observed throughout the remainder of the 19th and the first third of the 20th century, it really took off after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted the "Good Neighbor Policy" in 1933, which was geared toward improving relations with Latin American countries. "Cinco de Mayo's purpose was to function as a bridge" between the United States and Mexican cultures, according to José Alamillo, professor of ethnic studies at Washington State University (as reported by National Geographic). Its popularity grew in the 1960s when Mexican-Americans embraced it as a means of building their cultural pride.


The 1980s: The Corona connection

In the 1980s, beer companies, particularly Corona, recognized there were profits to be made on Cinco de Mayo through selling beer to the rising Latino population in the United States. "Through a series of well-received advertisements, Corona helped transform Cinco de Mayo into an all-day happy hour celebration, encouraging the growing Mexican and Mexican-American population to celebrate their heritage on May 5 by purchasing Mexican beer," according to Latina.

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Congress declares Cinco de Mayo a national holiday

Cinco de Mayo became an official U.S. holiday in 2005 when the U.S. Congress declared it as such and called upon the president of the United States to issue a proclamation that Americans could observe the day by celebrating Mexican-American heritage with "appropriate ceremonies and activities." It is now customary for the president to host a Cinco de Mayo reception at the White House, complete with folklórico dancers, according to Latina. Find out the history behind another holiday that falls during the fifth month: What is May Day?

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Political parties

Both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama used Cinco de Mayo to connect with the Hispanic community by holding celebrations and receptions (inviting Cabinet members, Latino celebrities, and Mexican Embassy officials to the White House), and to promote immigration reform. In 2016, Obama had 500 guests, food catered by San Antonio celebrity chef Johnny Hernandez, and music by Mexican pop band Maná. Vice President Mike Pence hosted the 2017 White House Cinco de Mayo celebration.

Callejon de los Sapos - Puebla, MexicoDiego Grandi/Shutterstock

Cinco de Mayo's historical relevance to the United States

Although Cinco de Mayo is largely a celebration of Mexican culture in the United States, it is quite historically significant. Had it not been for the victory of the Mexican army at Puebla, France would have been able to turn its attention to aiding the Confederate Army during the Civil War. In addition, Cinco de Mayo is the last time that any foreign power has acted as the aggressor on North American soil (the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor course took place in the middle of the Pacific, of course). Learn the reason we also remember American military veterans in May—the history of Memorial Day.

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