The elements came together perfectly—the tacos, the tequila, the red, green and white necklaces adorning every guest, the crackle of fireworks after sunset. It was everything I would have expected from a Cinco de Mayo party, except that this party wasn’t in May.
The date was Sept. 16—a holiday that Spanish-language loving, Mexican culture aficionado, lifelong Texan and, therefore, habitual eater of Tex-Mex cuisine me had never heard of. Two weeks prior, I had loaded my belongings into my Honda Civic and driven from my home in central Texas to a new city in northern Mexico. That was seven years ago, and I still live in Mexico.
During that time, I have learned three important distinctions between Sept. 16 and Cinco de Mayo:
1. Sept. 16 marks the beginning of the war for Mexico’s Independence from Spain. Cinco de Mayo acknowledges the Battle of Puebla against France.
In 1810, a group of young people in the city of Querétaro were quietly preparing an independence movement to begin later that year. When news of the movement leaked and members of the Querétaro group were arrested, it was priest and fellow revolutionary Miguel Hidalgo who began the war when he gave the grito (cry) for independence on Sept. 16, 1810.
There is no official record of what Hidalgo said, but he was rumored to have said, “Long Live America!” and “And death to bad government!” Today, on the eve of Sept. 16, the Mexican president and governors around the country give a similar cry on the balcony of their respective government buildings, usually ending their speeches with “Viva Mexico!” or “Long Live Mexico!” which is met with cheers from the crowd below and those watching on live tv.
Cinco de Mayo commemorates a different historical event. French, Spanish and British representatives met in the port city of Veracruz in early 1862 to discuss the debts that Mexico, under President Benito Juárez, had accrued toward them. Though England and Spain decided not to leave Veracruz, France—hungry for its money—sent troops over the mountains and into central Mexico.
It was in Puebla that the French fought the first battle against the Mexicans, under the command of Ignacio Zaragoza, on May 5, 1862. The battle, known as the Battle of Puebla, ended with the French retreating. In “Cinco de Mayo: What Is Everybody Celebrating?” author Donald W. Miles writes that the Mexicans surprised not only the French, but also themselves with their bravery and tenacity.
The Mexicans surprised not only the French, but also themselves with their bravery and tenacity.
2. The Mexican War for independence lasted for 11 years, while France occupied Mexico for six years after the Battle of Puebla.
Less than a year after he gave the grito, Miguel Hidalgo was executed. José María Morelos became the next leader of the independence movement, but he, too, was executed in 1815. In “The History of Mexico,” author Burton Kirkwood explains it took Mexican liberals and conservatives agreeing to work together in order for the country to gain its independence from Spain in September of 1821.
Though Mexico won the Battle of Puebla, France did not give up. Napoleon III sent Maximilian to Mexico hoping, according to Kirkwood, that his rule would give France access to Mexico’s raw materials and create a market for them to sell their goods.
When the Civil War in the United States ended, Americans decided that France, by its presence in Mexico, was violating the Monroe Doctrine and began pressuring France to withdraw. Maximilian was executed in 1867, ending French rule in Mexico.
3. Sept. 16 is celebrated widely in Mexico. On the other hand, the popularity of Cinco de Mayo is recent and predominantly only in the United States.
The elaborate festivities of my first Sept. 16 in Mexico surprised me. However, I was even more surprised when, on the following May 5, the day passed without so much as a mention of it being, well, Cinco de Mayo. Workplaces were not required to give their employees a day off. There were no tacos-and-tequila parties and definitely no fireworks.
I was even more surprised when, on the following May 5, the day passed without so much as a mention of it being, well, Cinco de Mayo.
In their article for The New York Times, Claudio E. Cabrera and Louis Lucero II explain that in the 1960s, Mexican-American activists began using Cinco de Mayo as a way to honor where they came from. However, it was not until 1989, when the importers of Corona beer launched a commercial urging consumers to celebrate May 5 with one of their beers that the American public became aware of Cinco de Mayo. In 2016, the National Beer Wholesalers Association determined that Cinco de Mayo was the third most popular holiday for on premise beer sales.
The differences between Sept. 16 and Cinco de Mayo are many, but both occasions honor the bravery and determination of the Mexican people. Perhaps the American fascination with Cinco de Mayo is not wrong, but we must remember to celebrate Sept. 16, too.
Seven years ago, Sept. 16 was a holiday that I knew nothing about, but now, I celebrate it with pride. Mexico has given me plenty of tacos-and-tequila parties, yes, but it has also given me a husband, a daughter and a home.
Viva Mexico! indeed.
How much history do you know about Cinco de Mayo and Sept. 16? Why is it important to learn a diverse and broad range of American and global history?
Image via Raisa Zwart Photography