personal essay

Cinco de Mayo: The Real Story Behind This Celebration of Mexican Food and Drink

published May 5, 2022
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Credit: Photos: Ren Fuller

Many Americans believe that Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May, is Mexican Independence Day. It’s not. It is the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla between Mexico and France on May 5, 1862. In fact, in Mexico it has about as much cultural significance as Pearl Harbor Day (the day Japanese Navy Air Service attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor Hawaii) does in the U.S.

The Battle of Puebla

In 1862 Mexico was in a period of financial recession. Newly elected president Benito Juárez, a lawyer and member of the Indigenous Zapotec tribe, halted payment of debts to foreign governments until the country could replenish its treasury. 

Napoleon III, emperor of France, decided, instead of demanding repayment, to invade and seize Mexican territory. His heavily armed French navy landed in the port city of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico and his troops drove Juárez’s army made up of mainly indigenous men, westward to the town of Puebla de Los Angeles, about 175 miles from the coast.

Six-thousand French troops attacked the small town while the 2,000 courageous (but poorly armed) Mexican soldiers put up a fierce resistance to defend their home. On May 5, 1862, Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza and his brave men held back the French assault on Puebla in a battle that lasted from dawn to dusk. 

After suffering losses of nearly 1,000 men, the French finally retreated. Fewer than 100 Mexicans were lost in the battle.

Cinco de Mayo Today

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is a relatively minor holiday. It’s primarily observed in the state of Puebla, where the victory occurred. The day is commemorated with military parades and reenactments of the battle. But for most, it is just another day, not even a federal or bank holiday.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Cinco de Mayo has become a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in areas with large Mexican American populations like Los Angeles, Chicago, and parts of Texas.

During the 1960s, Chicano activists in the U.S. used the day to raise awareness of the plight of the Indigenous Peoples in Mexico who fought against the oppression of European invaders. 

By the late 1980s, food and especially beverage brands began using the day to market beer and tequila. This evolved into the food and drink revelry we are accustomed to today. For the past several years in the U.S., beer sales on Cinco de Mayo have exceeded sales on any other holiday, including the 4th of July and St. Patrick’s Day. It even exceeds Super Bowl Sunday.

But to bring the day back to its origins, and to honor the food and culture of the city of Puebla for this Cinco de Mayo, I am including two of my favorite platos poblanos (iconic dishes from Puebla): tacos Árabes and cemitas Poblanas.

Credit: Ren Fuller

Tacos Árabes are a beautiful combination of Iraqi and Mexican culture and cuisine and represent the fusion of two beloved dishes: shawarma and the taco.

Get the recipe: Tacos Árabes

Credit: Ren Fuller

This fried pork cutlet sandwich is topped with strands of queso Oaxaca. The first time I saw someone make it, I was in complete awe.

Get the recipe: Cemita Poblana