Cinco de Mayo

Oh great, it’s that time of year again. The one day a year Americans pay attention to the Mexican “culture”. It’s the one date your average American can say in Spanish. (Although I’m sure we’ve all had that student who has asked what day is Cinco de Mayo!) But why May 5? Why is this the holiday that seems to be the focus of all Spanish classrooms? Have you ever looked through a foreign language catalog? Count the number of products featuring 5 de Mayo. It will undoubtedly outrank any other cultural aspect of any country. Go to a party store. Guaranteed you’ll find a section with “Cinco de Mayo” decorations.5 de mayo celebrations

But why? What is Cinco de Mayo? To learn of its historical significance, I suggest reading this page, and recommend sharing it with your students.

Before we look at what it is, lets talk about what it is NOT:
It is not Mexican Independence Day. Repeat, it is NOT Mexican Independence Day. If there is just one thing that my students remember from my class, I hope it is this piece of information. I know that if they don’t continue to study Spanish, that in 15 years, they may not remember what a “reflexive verb” is, or what “-ar preterite endings” are, but if they can spread the message of what 5 de Mayo actually is, then I will feel successful.

Yes, students commonly mistake this holiday for Mexican Independence Day. And why wouldn’t they? How many products do you see being sold for that “holiday”? How many Spanish classes have a “party” on September 15? (“It’s too early in the year for a party”) Now compare that number to the number of celebrations that take place in Spanish classes for May 5th. (“It’s almost the end of the year!”) I’m not slamming those who do celebrate this holiday, but comparing the attention it receives in relation to actual important events in Mexican history.

I believe that Spanish teachers are perpetuating ignorance by insisting on having celebrations on Cinco de Mayo instead of actually informing students. What do students remember? Parties, Celebrations, fun, food, fiestas! “Well, we had a party in Spanish class, so it must be Independence Day” When the focus is food rather than information, students lose focus.

Fact is, Cinco de Mayo is not even celebrated throughout Mexico. It is celebrated more in the U.S. than it is in Mexico. Yes, Cinco de Mayo has its regional historical significance. Yes, it continues to be celebrated in the town of Puebla, Mexico. Outside of Puebla, no one in Mexico celebrates Cinco de Mayo. It is not a national holiday. However, it is marketed by companies to sell products to Americans. People who know nothing at all about its history are the first to the bar and Mexican restaurants to consume Corona, tequila, tacos, and quesadillas. Actually talk to someone from Mexico and you will get a complete different perspective on this “holiday”.

This day is not even one of the major Mexican holidays. Clearly the celebrations of Independence September 15 and 16th are at the top of the list. And after that you have November 20th (Día de la Revolución), February 5th (Día de la Constitución), and March 21 (Día del Natalicio de Benito Juárez). But I guess el quince de septiembre, veinte de noviembre, cinco de febrero, and veintiuno de marzo are not as easy for English speakers to say when they are un poco tomado.

One of the best analogies I have heard about the foolishness of making a big deal of Cinco de Mayo comes from a former colleague of mine, who was born and raised in Mexico City:
Americans celebrating Cinco de Mayo is like Mexicans celebrating a battle that the South won in the Civil War, a war which they lost.

It’s your turn. Comment below with your reactions. Do you celebrate Cinco de Mayo in your class? Do you celebrate other Mexican holidays in a similar fashion? If you asked your students, would they be able to accurately tell you what 5 de mayo is? What are your plans this year for May 5th?

America's Holiday

About spanishplans

Spanish Teacher in Chicago. Have studied or traveled to Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina, and Uruguay. Have taught level 1 at middle and high school levels. Degree in Spanish and Master's in Teaching and Leadership. Blogger www.SpanishPlans.org
This entry was posted in Culture, Discussion/Methodology, History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Cinco de Mayo

  1. Korena Lund says:

    Out of curiosity, are you also opposed to celebrating Christmas, Easter, Passover, Chinese New Year, Saint Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Oktoberfest, Halloween, and Kwanzaa? These are also holidays that are widely celebrated in the U.S. but which have their roots from other countries. I personally love that we can honor Latino culture on a given day (much like we celebrate Martin Luther King Day to honor African-Americans who have made an impact within American society and culture) having such a large percentage of the population being of Latinos/Chicano descent. Plus, if you do know your history, it makes a lot more sense for an American to celebrate the Cinco de Mayo holiday over September 16th for multiple reasons:

    Presidents Lincoln and Juarez were close allies at the time of the French invasion in 1862. The only reason that the U.S. did not send troops to assist its neighbors to the south (and uphold the Monroe Doctrine of 1823) was because we were involved in our own Civil War. However, we did send aid to the Jauristas as soon as our war was through, which helped lead to the ultimate withdrawal of Napoleon III’s men and the end of all foreign invasions of the Americas until WWII/9-11.

    Did you know that Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated in the U.S. as long as it has been in Mexico? When many Mexican expatriates (who were living in the U.S.) caught word of the results of the legendary battle of Puebla, they celebrated. It is recorded that the first annual Cinco de Mayo dance and celebration took place in San Francisco, CA on May 5th 1863, sponsored by an entrepreneur there. Festivities have continued through the years and they have grown in attendance. This holiday is now celebrated in all 50 states and even in the White House. Check out Sommers’ article (1985, Oct.-Dec. Symbol and Style in Cinco de Mayo. Journal of American Folklore, 98 no. 390, 476-482) to see how the holiday has evolved in the U.S. over the past 148 years.

    I agree with you that Americans tend to over-commercialize holidays. After all, wasn’t it in August that I first saw Christmas decorations start to appear on the shelves at a local shopping chain this past year? I also agree that beer and booze companies tend to take advantage of the Cinco de Mayo holiday (as they do New Year’s, St. Patty’s Day, and Superbowl), but you should know that there are many Chicanos and Latinos in general who are offended by that, and they are trying their best to keep the holiday focused on celebrating their histories, languages, and cultural pride.

    If you do read Sommers’ article (which I highly recommend you do), you will see how the holiday has changed in the U.S. through the years. Ballet folkloricos now include dancers from various Latino countries, not just Mexico; and food items that are sold during Cinco de Mayo festivities often include culinary specialties from various Latin American countries. It has become a neutral date for celebrating all Hispanic cultures and countries here in the U.S., not just Mexico’s. This makes sense to me rather than celebrating Mexican Independence Day, Columbia’s Independence Day, Brazil’s Independence Day, Peru’s, Argentina’s, etc. You get the picture! The U.S. had little to do with any of these dates in history (if any at all) BUT we DID get involved and helped end the French Empire within Mexico.

    Why celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the U.S.A.?
    –To commemorate an important historical event–the Battle of Puebla
    –To celebrate Mexican culture, language, heritage, and pride
    –To celebrate family & friends and to build community
    –To pay tribute to the influential leaders of Mexican and Latino descent
    –To rally the voices of the Latino community living in the United States
    –To celebrate historical and modern day ties between the U.S. & Mexico

  2. spanishplans says:

    Thanks for the comment.

    But if we want to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage, then the celebration should take place on September 16th or anytime during Hispanic Heritage Month Sept 15- Oct 15. There is no other latino culture associated with 5 de Mayo.

    And because of the reasons stated by you, I do not believe that it should be celebrated (taught yes; celebrated, no) in the Spanish classrooms especially because of the American nature of the celebrations.

    Here’s what Mexicans themselves say about 5 de Mayo as posted on twitter:

    -La batalla de Puebla fue de Mexicanos vs. Franceses. La pregunta aquí es… por que demonios la festejan los gringos?! #5demayo

    – LOS GRINGOS FESTEJAN EL #5demayo PORQUE ES MAS FACIL QUE DECIR 16 DE SEPTIEMBRE

    -Apuesto que mas de la mitad aun no saben por que están de huevones el #5demayo #

    -#esbienculero Que los gringos festejen el #5demayo y no sepan ni que madres paso.

    -¿Por que los compatriotas celebran más el #5demayo que el 15 de septiembre en Gringolandia?

    -#sepasan los americanos y “mexicanos” aka en U.S.A. celebrando #5demayo komo si fuera la independencia de Mexico

    -Siento ser la grinch del #5demayo pero eso fue lo único que ganamos de esa guerra, luego Puebla fue tomada y a México le pusieron emperador

    -mexicanos ignorantes que celebran #5demayo en US creyendo que es el día de la independencia

  3. Pingback: Cinco de Drinko | spanishplans

  4. It’s early May again and it’s time to combat ignorance with facts, but I always try to do it in a positive and upbeat way. I tell the story of the French invasion of Mexico and the defeat of Napoleon III and his fancy-pants army being overrun by peasants with rakes and hoes (and a whole lot of soul). I also tell the sad story of Maximilian and Carlota . . . I encourage students to eat all the Mexican food they care to and to raise a glass (of non-alcoholic drink) in support of those brave people in Puebla that won back their city from the invaders. And I challenge them to enlighten at least one other person about the real meaning of the holiday. ~un abrazo~ –AnneK

  5. Anonymous says:

    Teaching culture is always a challenge because of so many differing views. As for a battle won and a war lost, depending on your prospective, the Alamo and Pearl Harbor could be parallel. Many holidays are offensive to some and should always be approached with careful consideration. With every victory someone loses. We are professionals and must always strive to disseminate truth and eliminate error.

  6. mrwisley says:

    Why not capitalize on a common misconception and then utilize it as a teaching moment? I teach them about the underdog spirit which is what was initially the reason for the celebration, and have them talk about other situations/moments where a true underdog overcame tremendous obstacles. I’M A TEACHER!!! Then we celebrate (and take a bit of a break in this crappy testing season) with food representative of other cultures. Today, I ate curry, Samoan banana fritters, patacones, tres leches cake, flan, shepherd’s pie, baklava, quba (sp.?) lumpia, empanadillas, and more. And I heard students speaking proudly of their heritage and saw students trying things for the first time. I’ll keep celebrating Cinco de Mayo, thank you very much. And if my friends want to have a margarita on Sunday just like they had a Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll try not to be too uptight about it.
    If I come across as irritated, I suppose it’s because I am. This post was arrogant, dismissive, and presumptuous. Having been to Puebla and visited the site, I probably tell the story of the Battle of Puebla better than most. But then again, I’m a teacher…so I can turn just about anything into a great lesson. And they’ll get all that on Monday. But today I spun a yarn about the large shipment of mayonnaise that was on the Titanic and how the disconsolate Mexicans declared a day of mourning that they observe to this day. It’s known, of course, as Sinko de Mayo. So go ahead and start judging me again.

    • Anonymous says:

      Me gusta! Me gusta mucho! As a teacher of both Spanish AND French with a strong preference for Spanish my classes usually (depending on their behavior) get some sort of Cinco de Mayo celebration. Yes they get the true story and many of them will quote me by telling their friends that it’s a “Tex-Mex restaurant plot to sell tacos and beer” in the U.S. and not really celebrated in Mexico anyway. It still gives us a much needed break right before exam review begins AND per my requirements gives many of my students a reason to visit one of the local Mexican markets for items to bring to class (no Taco Bell allowed)! By the way, most of the classroom resources that I’ve seen do NOT refer to it as Independence Day and are pretty accurate in their history.

  7. LovedHearingEveRyones Opinion And I Think I LeArnedSomething Here Today. Wish I COuld Hear Mr Wiselys Cinco De Mayo Tale!!!

  8. Elma says:

    Being a Mexican, for many years this bothered me until I found out about the origins of the celebration of Cinco de Mayo in the U.S.
    Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican-American celebration, it was chosen because it is a battle that has relevance for both countries. For Mexico was a symbol of unity and helping the country find its own identity. For the U.S it is an important battle because it prevented the French from supporting the South during the Civil War.
    So every Cinco de Mayo I explain the whole issue to my students and celebrate with them.

  9. Fred says:

    May 5th has been celebrated in my state of California since 1863 in one way or another. It will be no different this year either. Its evolved of course into a major commercial holiday where often the meaning gets lost. I cannot speak for the rest of the nation, but here in Cali this day is part of our history, culture, and heritage!

    I’ll be celebrating either at home or out with friends again this coming year. I’ll have the flag of Mexico out in front of my house and F@#K anyone who has a problem with that!!!!

  10. Kara says:

    I love reading the comments! I plan on including ALL these unique viewpoints when I teach about it in class. Thank you. I have seen that it is a big Mexican pride event in Denver and I want students to know the facts.

  11. Fred says:

    Good to know that Kara! Its a big Mexican pride event here I Los Angeles as well. People of Mexican descent number over 30 million now so we’re making our presence known!!!

  12. LaProfesora says:

    Great information! Last year was my 1st year tracing and I planneed a lesson. To informed the students about Cinco de mayo. My school administrators questioned me about the reasons why I did not planned an event to celebrate such as important date with the entire school.

    This year I Have A new principal and told me that I need to plan the Cinco de mayo celebration to involve all grade levels. I will plan so meting to make sure I educate the entire school, students and staff…

    • spanishplans says:

      Just goes to show you that a lot of people think it is an authentic holiday that is widely celebrated in Mexico. Exactly the reason we need to educate our students on the reality.

      • Fred says:

        Well it will be a blast as usual here in Cali. Its become the “July 4th of Spring” here.lol

  13. Toraneko says:

    Well, it IS celebrated a lot here in Puebla. There is a big parade with marching bands, students, dancing, traditional food everywhere, there are representations of the battle, there are cultural events all month around. The parade was moved a few years ago to start and end at a monument of Zaragoza, next to the place where the battle happened.

    I’m really proud to be born here, and I think you should not stop celebrating the least bit, when a group of corageous people fought and won for their freedom. IF anything, I hope you take the oportunity to correct the reasons of celebration, and keep on celebrating this historic day.

    • I teach Cinco de Mayo en my elementary Spanish classes with the purpose of educating and dispelling the misinformation about the holiday. The children enjoy learning the true meaning of 5 de mayo, most especially the boys who love war stories! I make connections between the U.S, colonies’ fight for independence.

  14. J Gomez says:

    You are right on! I am sharing. Last year I made a facebook post about the same thing and wouldn’t you know that there was this one cousin’s wife who had to make herself heard that her dad’s grandpa or whoever fought in that battle and how important it was. Yes, we should honor those soldiers…, but she really did not get my point….that Mexicans outside of Puebla don’t celebrate it and it is really just a way for beer companies, etc. in the U.S. to sell their products. I know some Hispanic communities around the U.S.have cultural celebrations at this time, but if we think really hard about that, it has probably become a tradition in those places because that is the only time their white city leaders put anything on an event calendar regarding Mexican culture, so they go with it.

  15. D says:

    But… the U.S. provided almost all of the political knowledge and much of the military assistance necessary for Mexico to expel the French. Monroe doctrine and all that. Can’t it be an American holiday too?

    • Fred says:

      It is a American holiday! Most of Mexico could not give a rat’s ass about it. Its a holiday that was started by Mexican Americans.

      • Now I get it! It’s like Kwaanza for some of us black folks! 🙂 People want to be politically correct with me and assume I celebrate Kwaanza. I like the idea of it, but I don’t celebrate it. Just just like Latinos we are not all alike and think or believe in the same things!

  16. What is a “Pocho” holiday?

  17. Fred says:

    As the saying goes, “If everyone thinks alike than everyone is not really thinking.”

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