By Kasie Le Nguyen

You’ve heard of Cinco de Mayo, but how much do you really know about the holiday?

Cinco de Mayo, or the 5th of May, is a Mexican holiday that commemorates the Mexican Army’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla, Mexico in 1862. In 1861, Napoleon III, ruler of France at the time, invaded Mexico in the hopes of creating an empire out of Mexican territory. Napoleon soon sent a massive French fleet to storm Veracruz – driving out Mexican president  Benito Juárez and his government.

Expecting a swift victory, the 6,500 French troops planned their first attack on Puebla de Los Angeles –  a small town in east-central Mexico. To combat the raid, President Juarez organized a small force of 2,000 loyal men and sent them to Puebla. Greatly outnumbered and poorly equipped, the Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the French assault. On May 5, 1862, the French army arrived with heavy artillery and the battle ensued from daybreak to early evening. By the time the French finally retreated, they had lost some 500 men, while the Mexican forces had lost fewer than 100.


Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Minneapolis, MN

Although the battle was not significant in the overall war against the French, the victory of Puebla represented a great symbolic victory for the Mexican government and helped sustain the resistance effort.

Within Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is primarily celebrated in Puebla, where the triumph occurred. Celebratory traditions include parades, battle reenactments and various festive events. Cinco de Mayo in the United States however, is considered a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage and is widely observed during the first week of May. Cities host a slew of carnivals, street fairs and festivals, as thousands of Americans gather to enjoy festive music, costumes and food.

The biggest and best Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the States take place in cities with large Mexican-American populations like Los Angeles.

L. A.’s Fiesta Broadway celebration, which begins the last week of April and continues into the first week of May, includes a series of festivals and events scattered throughout the city with more than 500,000 visitors flocking the city’s downtown area. The merriment continues a few days later as the party moves to the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, during which the city’s oldest district is adorned with Mexican flags. Partygoers dance and enjoy traditional Mexican music,  folk tales and fare.

Chicago, like L.A., goes all out for Cinco de Mayo and throws a three-day fiesta, complete with a parade down Sacramento Drive in Lawndale and mariachi music and folkloric dancing at Navy Pier.

Every year, Washington, D.C. hosts the National Cinco de Mayo Festival where the Maru Montero Dance Company performs. The celebration extends beyond Mexican culture to encompass and embrace Latin American heritage, as well. Performers from different parts of Latin American come to perform in front of the Washington Monument.


In Texas, the cities of San Antonio and San Marcos offer the most authentic Cinco de Mayo experiences. San Antonio’s Market Square is the city’s party hub, where a mass of parties, food booths, arts and crafts, carnival rides, face-painting, other activities will be held throughout the weekend. San Marcos also holds festivities over a three-day period – complete with parade floats, Tejano music, folkloric dancing, Miss and Little Miss Cinco de Mayo pageants and a state-wide menuendo competition.

Arizona is also known for its Mexican influence and Phoenix is home to plenty of Cinco de Mayo partying. The downtown Phoenix celebration takes place at Patriot Square Park, where there are a multitude of booths, while in other areas of Phoenix like Chandler, Scottsdale, and Mesa have events like the annual Chihuahua race, a three-day festival with dance competitions, outdoor stage and crafts booths, and club and resort-hosted pool parties.

These of course, are just a few Cinco de Mayo celebratory hot spots. No matter where you go, people across the U.S. will find some way to enjoy this Mexican holiday in the biggest and boldest ways.

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