Celebrating Cinco de Mayo

Among Americans, the most misunderstood fact of Cinco de Mayo is that the holiday is NOT Mexico’s independence day, nor does it have anything to do with the country’s founding.  In reality, Cinco de Mayo (“Fifth of May” in Spanish) has become more of an American holiday than a Mexican one and, for many, just an excuse for revelry.   Most non-Mexican Americans have no idea about the day’s history, but for your students this holiday can be a strong anchor for learning about the U.S.A.’s southern neighbor.

You don’t have to be Mexican to celebrate Mexico’s heritage

What is Cinco de Mayo?

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over the forces of Napoleon III of France on May 5, 1862, at the Battle of Puebla.  In 1861, Mexico declared a temporary suspension of the repayment of foreign debts, so British, Spanish, and French troops invaded the country.  By the spring of 1862 the British and Spanish had withdrawn, but the French  remained.  Its goal was to establish a monarchy under Maximilian of Austria and to curb growing U.S. power in North America.

Mexican and French forces met in battle at Puebla, southeast of Mexico City.  In an unlikely turn of events, a poorly equipped Mexican army under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated the French troops.   The victory at Puebla became a symbol of Mexican resistance to foreign domination (although the fighting continued and the French were not driven out for another five years).  Although the holiday was only celebrated locally for about 100 years, by the mid twentieth century the celebration of Cinco de Mayo became among Mexican immigrants to the United States a way of encouraging pride in their Mexican heritage.

A Celebration of Mexican Heritage

From the 16th century onward, Mexico had been dominated by the Spanish empire until it revolted against Spain in 1810.  The Spanish influence can be felt even today in the language, culture, music, and food of the country.  However, the Spanish overlords could not erase the heritage of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, and this native heritage is also strongly felt among the people.

Oddly, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated more in the U.S. than in Mexico.  Except for in the state of Puebla, May 5 is like any other day.  It is not a federal holiday, so stores, banks, and government offices remain open.  Americans of Mexican descent, and Americans of all ethnic backgrounds in the U.S. observe the holiday informally to celebrate Mexican culture.

Mexican cuisine

Mexico has one of the world’s most historic cuisines, and this history is reflected in every dish.  The origins of Mexican cuisine go back 5,000 years, when Mexico had yet to be colonized by Europeans.  At that time, indigenous people, who eventually coalesced into cultures such as the Olmec, Maya, Toltec, Aztec, Zapotec, and Mixtec, roamed the area and survived by hunting and gathering.  One of the most common plants in the area was the wild chile pepper, which they ate frequently.


It is thought that corn first entered the diet of the first Mexicans around 1200 BCE.  Corn was domesticated through a process called Nixtamalization in which the corn is soaked and cooked in limewater (or another an alkaline solution), washed, and hulled.  This softens the corn for grinding.  This process led to the use of corn based breads such as tortillas.  Since meat was scarce in the area, the indigenous people used beans as a source of protein.  The beans would be served as a side of most meals with corn.

Enter the Europeans

If you are familiar with the term “the Columbian Exchange”, you will know this was the widespread transfer of plants, animals, culture, humans, technology, diseases, and ideas between the Old World and the New World 16th century.  In what would become Mexico, the Spanish brought many of their own dishes to the indigenous culture such as rice, olive oil, garlic, coriander, and cinnamon.  They also brought many domesticated animals like pigs, sheep, cows, and chickens.  Cows and goats were used for dairy as well as meat, so cheese became a main ingredient in many dishes.  Since colonization, many cultures have influenced Mexican Food, including the French who had a strong military presence in the country in the 19th century.  French food was enjoyed by the upper class even after they left.

Mexican Food Today

Today Mexican Cuisine is a blend of indigenous and Spanish cuisine.  Its foundation remains corn, beans, tortillas, and chile peppers, but these are now usually served with meat and cheese.  Most dishes have a side of rice and spices, reflecting European influence.  It should be noted there is a big difference between what is considered authentic Mexican cuisine and the more well-known Tex-Mex cuisine such as burritos, chili con carne, chimichangas, hardshell tacos, enchiladas, nachos, and fajitas.

The languages of Mexico

Spanish is spoken by the vast majority of Mexicans (110 million people), but another 2 million also speak Nahuatl which is derived from the ancient language spoken by the Aztecs.  English is the third most-spoken language, and languages related to the Maya are spoken by a million people in southern Mexico.  Interestingly, in 2003, a law defending the rights of indigenous tongues recognized 69 languages (including Spanish) as Mexico’s official languages.

Mexican music

Like most things in Mexico, the music of the country is a blend of Spanish and native influences.  The three major types of Mexican music are: Mariachi, Norteño, and Banda.  Mariachi is perhaps the best known outside of the country.

Long considered a uniquely Mexican sound, representing a grass roots tradition that includes both indigenous and foreign elements, Mariachi is a small Mexican ensemble of mostly stringed instruments.  The typical instruments of Mariachi include the vihuela (a five-string guitar related to a Spanish Renaissance instrument), the guitarrón (a large, fretless 6-string bass guitar), a standard six-string acoustic guitar, violins, and trumpets.  Mariachi are most memorably heard performing the popular song “La Cucaracha” (“the Cockroach”) on the street, at festivals, or in restaurants.

Norteño, is a style of folk music associated with northern Mexico and Texas.  This style typically features an accordion and uses polkas and other rhythms found in the music of German, Austrian, and Czech folk music.  Norteño was brought to Mexico from Europe by the Austrian archduke Maximillian who reigned as emperor of the Second Mexican Empire.

Banda is a Mexican band featuring brass instruments, the tambora (a two-headed drum), woodwinds, and singers.  Its energizing percussive power and commanding horns makes Banda unique.

Folk dancing is still common in Mexico.  Everyone knows the iconic “Mexican Hat Dance”, Jarabe Tapatio.  This dance, performed by one person or several people, involves tossing a sombrero to the center of the stage, dancing around it and ending the performance with a collective “Olé!” and a hand clap.

Classical music is also popular in Mexico.  Manuel María Ponce’s “Concierto del Sur” for guitar and orchestra is among the most famous classical works, and “Guatimotzin” is a well-known Mexican opera.

Mexican art

Mexican art is unique and distinct, representing Mexican culture’s rich heritage and colorful pride.  Perhaps the best-known painters are Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera.  Folk art plays a key role in Mexican culture with handcrafted clay pottery, multi-colored baskets and rugs, and garments with angular designs.  Mexican mythology themes are still used in designs, most commonly the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoc.

Mexican literature

In 1990, Octavio Paz, certainly one of the greatest authors of the 20th century, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Agustín Yáñez and Carlos Fuentes rank among great Mexican writers, too.  Fuentes’ 1985 novel The Old Gringo, about the disappearance of the American writer Ambrose Bierce in Mexico during the revolution, is his best known novel in the United States.  Europe, South and East Asia have important writers from antiquity, and so do the Americas.  The Pre-Columbian writer Nezahualcoyotl left behind a legacy of poetry and written works in the Classical Nahuatl language.

Mexican holidays

Celebrations in Mexico are called “fiestas” and typically include parades, fireworks, and pageants.  Traditional masks are also present in fiestas, as is the traditional papier-mâché object, the piñata, made to look like an animal or person.  It is filled with candy and toys and suspended from the ceiling at a fiesta.  Blindfolded children take turns trying to hit it open with a bat.

Some fiestas are religious in nature, so prayers and the burning of candles also take place.  The most important religious holiday for Mexico is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th.   It commemorates the belief that a man encountered the Virgin Mary on this day in 1531.

November 2 is Día de los Muertos (“The Day of the Dead”), also known as All Souls’ Day.  On this holiday, Mexicans honor those that have passed on.  Items collected throughout the year are placed on an adorned altar as an offering to the dead person.

Celebrated as a national public holiday, Mexican Independence day is September 16 and includes massive street parades, plenty of traditional foods, and rodeos.

Resources for Learning about Mexico

Help Teaching offers these educational resources:

KidsKonnect.com has 

BusyTeacher.org offers

Why not use Cinco de Mayo as a jumping off point to introduce students to the history and culture of Mexico.

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

Image source: Freepik.com

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