The real Cinco de Mayo and where to celebrate

By Jackie Dreyer

While it may be fun to make up an extra excuse to eat tacos and drink tequila, we've been missing the point when it comes to the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo. In the U.S., the historical significance of May 5 has been largely passed over in favor of a massive spike in beer sales (in fact, in 2014, more beer was sold on Cinco de Mayo than on Super Bowl Sunday or St. Patrick's Day!), and it's time to set the record straight.

Let us teach you about the real Cinco de Mayo and where to honor this celebration in the U.S.

The facts

Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not the celebration of Mexico's independence, which is actually celebrated annually on September 16. 40 years later, Cinco de Mayo came to be.

The story goes that, in 1862, Mexico found itself indebted to a number of European countries, so Napoleon III decided it was the perfect time to take advantage of Mexico's weakness and set up a monarchy in North America. Thus, French troops attacked the town of Puebla, Mexico, but General Ignacio Zaragoza was prepared.

Pleading for the help of all able-bodied men available, Mexico rallied together that May 5 and got the French to surrender, with the French suffering a loss of 500 troops, while General Zaragoza only lost less than 100 of the 2,000 men that showed up to fight that day.

From this day onwards, May 5 is recognized as a day of Mexican pride and resilience, and it has only increased in national significance over time, though it is not a national holiday in Mexico.

Extra credit reading: For an extremely thorough breakdown of important historical facts before, during, and after the Battle of Puebla, check out this article by National Geographic.

Where and how to celebrate

Mexico

Many travelers head straight to the source and go to Puebla for the most authentic Cinco de Mayo celebration. In Puebla, you'll get to enjoy colorful and joyous parades, in addition to a reenactment of the battle. As an added bonus when you're in Puebla, be sure to visit the city's beautiful and well-maintained cathedrals, which are what have turned the city into a UNESCO World Heritage Center.

Heads-up: If you're planning a trip to Mexico for Cinco de Mayo, heading anywhere other than Puebla will lead you to find people just going about their daily lives!

Denver, Colorado

Denver, Colorado, holds a two-day festival called "Celebrate Culture" that is put together by a local non-profit organization, NEWSED Community Development Corporation. On the morning of Cinco de Mayo, there is a large community parade, complemented by three different stages, where everyone can enjoy all different types of Hispanic music groups, as well as the well-known Hispanic Fiesta Colorado Folklorico Dancers.

Photo from Cinco de Mayo "Celebrate Culture" Festival.

Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles, California, boasts the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in the U.S., starting the last weekend of April with Fiesta Broadway. At this street festival, you'll get to enjoy popular Latin American artists and nibble on authentic dishes. Fiesta Broadway, however, is just the tip of the iceberg; TripSavvy has got you covered with a full Cinco de Mayo itinerary.

If you've got time to do additional sightseeing in L.A., pepper some more historical value into your trip with a detour to El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the original Spanish and Mexican neighborhood in the city, and Olvera Street, where you'll find great restaurants, food trucks, and street vendors.

Photo from El Pueblo Historical Monument.

Extra credit reading: For more ideas on where and how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, USA Today has a great rundown from the West Coast to Washington, D.C.


No matter what time of year you decide to explore Mexico, be sure to check out our travel guide on everything you need to know before you go.