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15 Cinco de Mayo Traditions to Get Your Party Started

Cinco de Mayo is a holiday that celebrates Mexican and Mexican American culture. Here's how to turn those traditions into a festive celebration.

Mexican flag weaving on sky backgroundAndrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

What Cinco de Mayo is really all about

May 5th—Cinco de Mayo—commemorates the day in 1862 the Mexican army pulled out an astounding victory over Napoleon III’s army at the Battle of Puebla, which took place in the first year after the French invaded Veracruz. (This was the start of the Franco-Mexican War, which lasted until 1867.) Although Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in Puebla and Veracruz with battle re-enactments, parades, and feasts, it’s not a national Mexican holiday—but in the U.S., we celebrate Mexican and Mexican-American culture on this day. Learn more about the history of Cinco de Mayo.

Overhead of fried avocado tacos with red cabbage slaw and sliced red jalapenos in metal tray with lime wedges and beer on wooden surface.Jacob Blount/Shutterstock

Make time for tacos

A perfect way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, according to Aarón Sánchez, the chef and owner of New Orleans’ Mexican restaurant, Johnny Sánchez, whom you may know as a host of the Food Network’s Chopped and judge on Fox’s MasterChef, is to enjoy a true icon of traditional Mexican food: the taco. One of Sánchez’s favorites is his own skirt steak taco, which he serves with grilled avocado (see below on why you should indulge in avocado on Cinco de Mayo).

Glowing interior in a loft style in a mexican restaurant with open kitchen on the background. In front of the kitchen there are wooden tables with multi-colored chairs and sofas. On the sofas therebezikus/Shutterstock

Head out to a real Mexican restaurant

Cinco de Mayo is a perfect day to try out one of our nation’s 54,000 Mexican restaurants. Your best bet for discovering the delights of true Mexican cuisine is to find a restaurant with a Mexican-American chef and/or owner.

making tacos at home in kitchenJoshua Resnick/Shutterstock

Whip up your own Mexican feast

While you’re cooking, feel free to indulge in a Mexican beer (see below) or a nice margarita. Here are some recipes for authentic Mexican favorites to get you started.

Beer glasses on dark tableLeszek Czerwonka/Shutterstock

Enjoy a cerveza

Historians believe that the first Cinco de Mayo celebrations were political rallies held by Mexican-Americans to generate support for Mexico during the Franco-Mexican War. But it wasn’t until President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the Good Neighbor Policy in 1933 that Cinco de Mayo began evolving into the colorful cultural celebration that it is today. Of course, Mexican beer companies—notably Corona—have spent millions boosting the day’s profile, according to Latina.com.

Tequila shotsPelikh Alexey/Shutterstock

Gain some tequila knowledge

Tequila is Mexico’s most popular spirit, according to Forbes, and drinking tequila is a time-honored way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. For extra credit, try this trivia: Tequila is named for the town of Tequila, Mexico, which was founded in 1530 by Franciscan monks, and is the place where the Cuervo family first produced tequila in 1795 under a royal permit from King Carlos IV of Spain. Find out more about the surprising birthplaces of your favorite foods and drinks.

Cooking of Mexican guacamole sauce. Man preparing Mexican sauce guacamole on rustic wooden table, top view, top viewKucherAV/Shutterstock

Make guacamole

Avocados originated in South Central Mexico, and the United States have embraced them wholeheartedly. According to the California Avocado Commission, each year, Americans consume more than 81 million avocados on May 5th alone. Here are 16 delicious avocado recipes that will make your mouth water.

Pretty girl listening music with her headphones in the streetMerla/Shutterstock

Listen to Mexican corridos

Around the time of the Franco-Mexican War, the most popular music in Mexico was corridoslong ballads that addressed political issues, celebrated great deeds, and told heroic stories. They’ve since evolved into tales of the Mexican experience in the U.S. To sample corridos, check out any of these albums. Or listen to any other music of Mexican origin, such as Ranchera, Norteño, Grupero, and Mariachi. Or listen to Tejano music, which evolved among the Mexican population in South and Central Texas.

Close up details of loudspeaker woofer and tweeter driver.Ridtee Chotechuang/Shutterstock

Put a party playlist together

Billboard magazine recommends putting these 10 popular Mexican songs from a variety of genres on your Cinco de Mayo playlist. You may want to also include songs that name-check the holiday, such as:

  • Isis, by Bob Dylan, which mentions the “fifth day of May”
  • Cinco de Mayo, by War

Here’s a list of songs with lyrics that reference Cinco de Mayo.

cinco de mayoSean Pavone/Shutterstock

Experience Mexican dance

Mexico has several forms of traditional dance, such as Danza and Mestizo. The national dance is the Jarabe Tapatio—more commonly known as the Mexican Hat Dance. Historically it was for courting, but today it’s done at celebrations like birthday parties. See how it looks here.

Callejon de los Sapos - Puebla, MexicoDiego Grandi/Shutterstock

Make plans to see the Battle of Puebla

In the town of Puebla, Mexico, the origin of Cinco de Mayo, locals dress up as Mexican and French soldiers and reenact the Battle of Puebla. You can also enjoy traditional dances, great food, Mariachi music, and colorful dress and decorations. And there are plenty more reasons to visit Mexico, like these 11 amazing sights you can only see there.

cinco de mayoSean Pavone/Shutterstock

Attend one of the largest Cinco de Mayo parties in the U.S.

The Festival de Fiesta Broadway in Los Angeles draws more than 600,000 people for a raucous and culturally accurate celebration of Mexican culture, history, and heritage.

Skydiver are going to dock to the formation in the sky.Sky Antonio/Shutterstock

Go skydiving

A tradition for Mexicans living in Vancouver, Canada, skydiving is one option for Cinco de Mayo. Just make sure to wear red, white, and green (the colors of the Mexican flag) to keep your experience true to this tradition.

Young man reading a bookfile404/Shutterstock

Read some classic Mexican literature

Consider Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquival, The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings, by Octavio Paz, or one of these other classics of Mexican literature. If you’re more in the mood for a movie, check out the celluloid version of Like Water for Chocolate.

Mariachi Musicians Pedro Gutierrez/Shutterstock

Be respectful

Enjoy the day, but be sensitive, asks Latina.com: Don’t don a sombrero or fake mustache, don’t think of the day as “Cinco de Drinko,” and be sure to sample some true Mexican culture. Learn more about the holiday with these 13 Cinco de Mayo facts you never knew.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.