Cinco de Mayo is one of the most celebrated Mexican national holidays in the United States, where many U.S. businesses and restaurants are decorated in green, white and red, the colors of Mexico’s flag, to observe this important day in traditional Mexican fanfare. Although Cinco de Mayo celebrates the determination of Mexicans to remain free from foreign control, it is not Mexico’s Independence Day..
Following the devastating loss of the Mexican-American War in 1848, Mexico was both financially and morally defeated. In 1861, President Benito Juarez issued a moratorium in which all foreign-debt payments would be suspended for a period of two years. Furious and eager to collect payment, England, France, and Spain invaded Mexico.
Unbeknownst to the other countries, France had its own agenda, ultimately aiming to impose a monarchical government upon the nations of Central and South America. Shortly after President Juarez offered a type of promissory note that guaranteed payments on its debt after the two years, England and Spain returned home, but the French continued their siege on Mexico.
On May 5, 1862, Juarez commanded General Ignacio Zaragoza to block the advance of the French forces at the fortified hills of Loreto and Guadalupe near the city of Puebla. With only 2,000 men, most of them local “Zacapoaxtla” Indians from the Puebla region with no formal military training and little weaponry, the locals were able to briefly defeat the French army of 6,000.
The victory was short-lived, and soon after, France conquered Puebla and the rest of Mexico, ruling until 1867. Through a popular revolt, Juarez was finally restored to power, remaining leader of Mexico until his death in 1872.
BEYOND CINCO DE MAYO
Cinco de Mayo was born in the central Mexican state of Puebla. Its capital city, also called Puebla, is one of the most impressive and oldest colonial cities in Mexico. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique beauty, the magnificent historic center is an ideal starting point for a Cinco de Mayo tour.
While in Puebla, visitors can enjoy the historical Cinco de Mayo sites such as the tomb and monument of Ignacio Zaragoza, the general who led Mexico to victory over France. The site of the battle is also a popular destination, featuring a museum with a display of hundreds of toy soldiers set up to show what happened on that day. Art expositions, concerts of both contemporary and classical Mexican music and a Mexican film series are also part of the attractions.
An annual parade is held down Avenida Cinco de Mayo, and festivities include a reenactment of the famous battle. Men dress as French and Mexican soldiers and generals, and women wear the clothing of the “soldaderas”, the women who cooked and looked after the soldiers in wartime. In some representations, the Mexican soldiers carry machetes and old gun-power rifles, and the French soldiers carry bags with wine bottles and fruit used as ammunition.
Puebla has much more to offer besides its traditional Cinco de Mayo sites. Once you are there, you will be able to appreciate the cultural diversity that this state possesses, based on the combination of European and indigenous influences that make Puebla such an interesting tourist destination.
The city of Puebla features many buildings and constructions that are vivid testimonies of its history and culture. Take the Historic Center for instance, where you can admire colonial architecture, mainly evident in the facades and doorways.
Also worth a visit are the museums displaying archeological objects, paintings, railroad cars, and other historic treasures, as well as many shops that specialize in Talavera pottery and traditional treats. Wander through the Los Sapos district to buy antiques and to sample wonderful poblano dishes including mole and chiles en nogada (when in season) from a wide range of restaurants.
Puebla State offers other beautiful cities to visit in addition to its capital city. Cholula, located about 5 miles from the city of Puebla, has a very important archeological site that includes the “Gran Piramide” (the Big Pyramid), also known as the Tenapa Pyramid, occupying more space than any other pyramid in the world. Built on top of the pyramid is the church Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios which was completed in 1666. Its symbolic position stands witness to the role of the Catholic church in the conversion of the indigenous people.
Cuetzalan, a very picturesque colonial town, located in the hills about 120 miles from Puebla city, features places such as the San Francisco and Guadalupe Churches, the Ethnographic Museum, the Municipal Palace, and the famed cemetery, where you will see colorful flowers and a belltower known as Iglesia de los jarritos decorated with 80 clay pitchers. A few miles outside the town, you will also find the archaeological zone of Yohualichan, the Atepolihui Falls and plenty of caves to explore. For more information on Puebla’s celebration of Cinco de Mayo and nearby attractions, contact the Tourism Secretariat of Puebla at (011-52-222) 246-1285.
CINCO DE MAYO CELEBRATIONS IN THE UNITED STATES
Typically held during the first week of May, Cinco de Mayo boasts carnivals, street fairs and multi-day festivals held over the U.S. Below is a list of some of the largest celebrations in the United States.
AUSTIN (Texas): May 5–7–The Texas capital city of Austin hosts the annual Cinco de Mayo Music Festival, featuring an array of activities including Little Cinco, a Jalapeño Eating Contest, and dance contests including Salsa, Jitterbug, Polka and more.
CHICAGO (Illinois): May 4–7–Drawing nearly 300,000 people and held at Douglas Park, Chicago’s celebration is one of the most colorful in the U.S., encompassing a grand festival, as well as musical events featuring many Mexican artists and a trade show, with an abundance of vendors, food booths, games, a children’s area and cultural displays. www.cityofchiago.org.
DENVER (Colorado): May 6–7–Touted as the largest Cinco de Mayo Festival in the United States, Denver’s festival is lo maximo. Now in its 19th year, the festivities emphasize the celebration of freedom and culture, Denverites enjoy six stages of live entertainment, dancing, food and crafts at the Civic Center Park. In addition, the celebration includes a special concert with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra among others, on May 4 and a Cinco de Mayo Civil Rights Award event held (date to be announced). www.newsed.org.
PORTLAND (Oregon): May 4–7–Portland’s Cinco de Mayo Fiesta is a family oriented, fun-filled event featuring four entertainment stages, delightful activities for children, artisans and vendors from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Visitors can also enjoy the Third Annual Mariachi Festival, folkloric ballet and delicious food from some of the finest restaurants in the Northwest. www.cincodemayo.org.
RENO (Nevada): May 5–7–Throughout the two-day celebration, locals enjoy one of the largest festivals on the West coast, including a Charros and Dancing Horse show with singing cowboys and horses; the Cinco-K race, walk and roll along the Truckee River; live music and dance performances on three stages, as well as a variety of traditional food vendors. http://www.marathondemayo.com/.
ST. PAUL (Minnesota): May 5-6–Festivities include salsa-tasting contest, a children’s area, sports zone, craft vendors, a parade, a history area and live music and entertainment, featuring a variety of Hispanic/Latino dancers, performers and musicians. www.districtdelsol.com.
SAN ANTONIO (Texas): May 5-7–San Antonio draws about 30,000 to its festivities with food booths at its historic Market Square, street dancing, handicrafts, concerts and other commemorations. Everyone from mariachis and folkloric dancers to Tejano and conjunto groups provide plenty of entertaining activities. www.sanantoniovisit.com.
SAN DIEGO (California): May 6-7–Visitors will enjoy a weekend of festivities including open-air entertainment featuring more than 200 performers at eight venues, also more than 100 specialty booths handcrafts and a Mexican feast featuring a delicious variety of regional cuisine www.oldtownguide.com.