It marks the unlikely 1862 victory of Mexican forces over French invaders in Puebla and is nearly as much a symbol of the nation’s eternal struggle to maintain its independence as the 16th of September.
In the state of Puebla, it is a full-out holiday, with plenty of parades and merrymaking, as well as food and folklore festivals.
But for most of the rest of Mexico, Cinco de Mayo has become a passé holiday, sometimes observed by government offices and schools in order to extend the Labor Day break, but infrequently revered for the importance it played in the nation’s history.
Strangely enough, though, that is not the case in the United States, where May 5 is reveled by Mexican immigrants and gringos alike as a celebration of all things Mexicano, including music, art, food, drink and culture.
For Mexicans and other Latinos living in the United States, the Cinco de Mayo holiday is seen as an alternative Mexican Independence Day, especially in Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, San Antonio, Sacramento, Albuquerque, Denver and El Paso, where large segments of the population have Mexican roots.
And, by osmosis, Cinco de Mayo has become a day that commemorates the role that Mexican immigrants have played in their adopted home, with many public schools and offices equating it with Mexican heritage and traditions and even hoisting Mexican flags in honor of the occasion.
The holiday has become so ingrained in U.S. culture, in fact, that 12 years ago, lawmakers in Washington passed a resolution calling for its recognition as a historically significant holiday.
But while the United States may have expropriated the Cinco de Mayo holiday as its own, the events it commemorates are strictly Mexican.
Cinco de Mayo officially marks the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, led by Ignacio Zaragoza against Napoleon III’s forces, but not the expulsion of the French from Mexico, which would take another five years to come to pass.
Perhaps it was the fleeting nature of Zaragoza’s success that is behind the disremembering of the once-important holiday in Mexico, or the fact that it has evolved into a confused gringo celebration of Mexican ethnicity.
But for whatever reasons it has lost relevance nationally, it is still on the books as a date of Mexican glory on the battlefield, and certainly merits a hat tip here, especially if you consider how many tequilas are being raised to toast the Cinco north of the border.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.