Cinco de Mayo, Explained

By Terrance Turner

May 5, 2022

Today is Cinco de Mayo, a holiday that commemorates the victory of Mexico over France at the Battle of Puebla. According to Time magazine, everything started in the 1860s: France wanted to expand its empire into Mexico. So Napoleon III (who was president of France from 1848 to 1852 and then Emperor of France from 1852 to 1870) ordered troops into Mexico to overthrow Mexico’s democratically elected President Benito Juarez.

The hyper-organized French forces were expected to triumph, and that would open the door for a partnership with Confederates. (According to the U.S. News & World Report, France planned to use Mexico as a “base” to help the Confederacy defeat the North in the Civil War.) Together, they could’ve installed a slave-holding oligarchy. Instead, Mexico prevailed.

On May 5, 1862, Mexican forces led by Ignacio Zaragosa defeated Napoleon III’s French army at Puebla, one of the most important Mexican colonial cities. That victory galvanized Latinos and led to spontaneous celebrations. As EGP News put it: “Far up in the gold country town of Columbia (now Columbia State Park) Mexican miners were so overjoyed at the news that they spontaneously fired off rifle shots and fireworks, sang patriotic songs and made impromptu speeches. Had a new holiday just been born?”

Latinos in California and the Pacific Northwest began celebrating the holiday with parades of people in Civil War uniforms, giving speeches about how the battle fit into the struggle for abolition. They soon started a network of organizations to fight slavery both in Mexico and the United States.


By the 1930s, the significance of the holiday began to fall by the wayside. But as the Chicano movement began to gain steam in the 1960s, activists began to celebrate the holiday more (especially at universities with sizable Mexican-American communities like Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles).

In the 1980s, savvy marketers recognized the growing numbers of Hispanic consumers as a base and began using the holiday for promo. Anheuser-Busch and Miller both created their own Hispanic marketing departments and began sponsoring Cinco de Mayo events, starting with a three-day festival in Los Angeles in 1989. Coors, meanwhile, spent over $60 million in marketing to Latinx consumers, hoping to turn around a perception (and a federal court order) that they had long had discriminatory hiring practices toward Mexicans.

Now Cinco de Mayo is more popular in America than in Mexico. By 2013, market research firm Nielsen reported that $600 million worth of beer was purchased in the United States for Cinco de Mayo, more than for Super Bowl Sunday or St. Patrick’s Day. The following year, CNN cited Cinco de Mayo as the biggest non-winter drinking day of the year. This, despite the fact that perhaps only 10% of Americans even know the reason for the holiday.


According to a consumer survey by Numerator, 44% of U.S. consumers plan to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and 67% expect inflation and product shortages to affect their plans. The survey also found 42% of consumers expect the pandemic to impact plans down from 78% in 2021.

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