One of Mexico’s more famous cultural exports, Cinco de Mayo is a holiday that is greatly misunderstood outside its home nation. Mexicans consider the day, which commemorates a military victory, a historical point of pride, though it remains a relatively minor holiday.
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo has turned into a popular excuse to party — even for those without ties to Mexico — a St. Patrick’s Day–like fiesta, as it were. For Americans and immigrants with family and cultural links to Mexico, however, Cinco de Mayo remains an important day on the social calendar.
Whatever your familiarity with Cinco de Mayo, here are seven ways to learn more about the holiday and dig deeper into Mexican culture.
1. Learn what Cinco de Mayo is actually about.
First of all, know that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day, as is sometimes rumored. The holiday actually dates back to 1861, when Mexican president Benito Juarez found himself in hot water after failing to repay debts to Spain, France and Great Britain.
Though he and the Mexican government settled their affairs peacefully with Britain and Spain, France, under the helm of Napoleon III, decided to invade Mexico. Cinco de Mayo marks a bright spot in the conflict, when Mexican forces in the city of Puebla defeated French invaders in 1862, despite eventually surrendering the capital and country to the French.
While not considered a major holiday in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo signifies a moment of pride that eventually helped spark the Mexican Revolution in 1910.
2. Head to Puebla, Mexico.
Unsurprisingly, Cinco de Mayo festivities are biggest in the city of Puebla, a colorful colonial city set in between five volcanoes that is most famous for its numerous 16th- and 17th-century baroque churches; mole Poblano, made with chocolate; and tacos arabes, which are made with a pita-like tortilla and spit-roasted pork.
This UNESCO World Heritage Centre hosts a large parade with a variety of floats, and locals dress as Mexican and French soldiers and reenact the battle. The Mexican win is then celebrated with iconic Poblano dishes like mole Poblano and chicken tinga, music and dancing.
3. Instead of tequila, try a different Mexican spirit.
For those who still want to celebrate Cinco de Mayo by having a drink, consider the world of agave spirits beyond tequila. Recently there has been a surge of interest outside of Mexico in Mexican spirits.
Mezcal, which often has a smokier taste, is at the forefront of exportation, but sotol, raicilla and bacanora are other spirits distilled from agave that can now be found in bars and restaurants across the world, though all are less ubiquitous than tequila.
4. Take in Chicano history in San Diego.
Just southeast of downtown San Diego is Chicano Park, an eight-acre park in the Barrio Logan neighborhood. Barrio Logan is considered the historic heart of San Diego’s Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant community, and this park pays tribute to its legacy through a series of murals that together make it the largest collection of graffiti in the United States and a National Historic Landmark.
Depicted in the murals are representations of Mexican history, prominent activists like César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, and other notable figures and depictions in Chicano history and culture.
The park was also the subject of a takeover: Barrio Logan residents in decades past had long been demanding a public park in their neighborhood but had been ignored by the city of San Diego. On April 22, 1970, an organized protest by local residents forced the city’s hand, and today, April 22 is celebrated as Chicano Park Day.
5. Check out Mexican art in Chicago.
Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art features Mexican, Latino and Chicano art and was founded in 1982. Since then it has become what the museum says is the largest Latino cultural institution in the United States of America.
In addition to hosting cultural events, the museum also houses a permanent exhibit, Mexicanidad: Our Past is Present, which explores Mexico’s history through five distinct periods in history. The museum also holds a yearly Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration.
6. Visit a historic street in Los Angeles.
Part of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, Los Angeles’ Olvera Street (or Calle Olvera) contains a multitude of historic buildings, market stalls and Mexican restaurants.
The street is one of Los Angeles’ original thoroughfares, with its name dating back to 1877, though it had existed well before that as an alley off of a main plaza. Today, the cobblestone Olvera Street continues to be one of the centers of Chicano history and culture in Los Angeles. It also hosts a vibrant Cinco de Mayo celebration where guests can enjoy mariachi and theatrical performances, arts and crafts, and food festivals.
7. Celebrate at Fiesta Broadway.
Not far from the Olvera Street celebrations is Fiesta Broadway, billing itself as the largest Latino celebration in the U.S.’s largest Latino market. Downtown Los Angeles along Broadway and around City Hall hosts more than 200,000 revelers, who come to enjoy performances from famous Latino artists, food from local vendors, carnival-style games and rides.