There's more to the holiday than tacos and tequila.

By Emily VanSchmus
March 04, 2021
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Cinco de Mayo is a traditional Mexican holiday with a fascinating history—but perhaps even more interesting is the fact that it's now become more popular in the United States than in Mexico. The holiday commemorates the Mexican army's victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, but it's primarily celebrated in Puebla, which is just one of Mexico's 31 states. So how did the holiday come to be such a large celebration in America? 

After the Mexican Civil War in 1915, many Mexican people came to the United States and settled in the southern states. When they came to America, they brought with them their customs, traditions, and holidays—including Cinco de Mayo. 

So the American people began celebrating Cinco de Mayo alongside their Mexican neighbors, but oftentimes they didn't really understand what they were celebrating; to them it was just a fun celebration of Mexican culture. Over the last hundred or so years, the holiday has taken off in America, with many people using it as an excuse to eat tacos and drink margaritas, rather than celebrating what the holiday actually stands for.  

If you've celebrated this way in the past, don't sweat it: Take this as an opportunity to learn more about the history of the holiday and plan a more appropriate celebration this year. 

tacos on the table
Credit: Foxys_forest_manufacture/Getty Images

How to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo Respectfully

We talked to chef Claudia Sandoval, the winner of MasterChef U.S. season six, judge on MasterChef Latino, and best-selling author of the cookbook Claudia's Cocina: A Taste of Mexico ($14, Amazon), about how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo without appropriating the holiday.

Sandoval's family originates from Mexico, so she grew up learning to cook traditional Mexican dishes and currently owns a modern Mexican bakery called Cochi Dorado in Southern California. She told us that while it is important to be culturally conscious, it's totally possible to celebrate the holiday without appropriating the Mexican culture. 

"One of the wonderful things about Mexican culture is that we love to share our holidays and customs with other people," she says. "We are the type of culture that welcomes you into our home, and however humble our plates, or offerings, you will always feel welcome to partake in familial and cultural activities."

However, it's still important to make sure you're participating in a respectful way. "As you choose to celebrate and partake in cultural holidays, we recommend doing your research and understanding the meaning behind those customs, and reasons for celebration," Sandoval says. "Cinco de Mayo isn't about celebrating independence. It is about celebrating the ability to stand up to forces beyond measure."

So how do you know whether you're celebrating the culture or appropriating it? Sandoval says it all comes down to educating yourself. "You may be culturally appropriating if you are celebrating inaccurately by not doing your homework," she says. "Mexican culture is about so much more than tacos and tequila. We encourage you to learn about our customs, our traditions, and our history. A little research goes a long way when you are trying to partake in festivities that belong to another culture and that don't continue to reinforce inaccurate stereotypes."

Ways to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo in 2021

Here are Claudia's best suggestions for how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo this year. Keep in mind that no matter how you celebrate, you should still follow local COVID-19 guidelines and practice social distancing whenever possible. 

1. Share the Real Story

Many Americans are quick to celebrate with tacos and margaritas without understanding the cultural significance of the holiday. Before partaking in any celebrations, take a few minutes to learn about the holiday and educate others you're celebrating with. "Changing stereotypes is something that we need help with, and if you do your part, we can share how awesome the truth behind Cinco de Mayo is," Sandoval says.

2. Support Mexican Businesses 

While there are plenty of chain restaurants that offer Cinco de Mayo deals, Sandoval suggests supporting locally instead: Skip the Taco Bell drive-thru and order carry-out from a local Mexican-owned business in your area. "Whether it's your local Mexican Restaurant, or a local Mexican pottery store, supporting small business owners helps not just your local economy but it helps to support the Mexicans who's culture you enjoy celebrating," she says.

3. Support Mexican Arts and Museums 

This holiday isn't just about the food! "So often we dismiss the value of true Mexican artesanías," Sandoval says. "If you have a local art gallery, museum, or artist, show up and support those artists and museums that are honoring Mexican history and culture." If you're not familiar with any in your area, a quick internet search can help you find local venues. 

4. Eat the Food!

It's important to make sure you're celebrating Mexican heritage and not treating the day as just an excuse to go out for margaritas—but food is such a large part of the Mexican culture, that it can be one of the best (and tastiest!) ways to celebrate. Order carry-out at a local restaurant, or try making your own at home. Sandoval recommends Mole Poblano, a spicy and delicious traditional Mexican dish that originates from the city of Puebla, or Enchiladas Poblanas that are made with poblano chiles.

Comments (5)

Anonymous
May 12, 2021
According to this article, I'm supposed to be offended when others "appropriate" my Irish heritage and inappropriately celebrate St. Patrick's Day. We have become too "soft". As my husband says.... "we could never win another World War".
Anonymous
May 2, 2021
One thing that historically makes America great is that we are a melting pot of many cultures. Each person carries a unique background, and flavors our country’s culture with their additions. This is beautiful and delicious! Also as Americans, we have the freedom to celebrate or not celebrate holidays as we chose. Although I turn to your magazine for inspiration rather than a history lesson, here I would’ve appreciated more content of the background story of Cinco de Mayo rather than the stumbling of words of how to celebrate appropriately. The other commenter made a good point of how the French influenced Mexican culture in a positive way with bakery techniques. I believe it is fair (and not expected) that Mexican bakeries do not fly the Flag of France or explain to customers the history of their product. Amen. Rather, these influences have become a delicious part of their culture, and they move forward. The owners of my local Mexican restaurants would proudly claim to be Americans of Mexican decent and welcome my patronage for whatever occasion. Since you brought up celebrating holidays appropriately, I would expect you to approach the 4th of July, Christmas and other holidays with the same attitude. I, however, would like to see a lot more excuses for joyously celebrating life and the freedom to thankfully eat a croissant, an egg roll, noodle, taco, naan or hamburger any day I want with no explanation as these foods and more are all part of my culture and my heritage as an American.
Anonymous
May 2, 2021
So, does this mean that all of the European American holidays are going to be celebrated respectfully as well? I doubt it. Everything we do is culturally appropriated. Look around you and everything was created by us. Cars, telephones, electricity, etc. So does this mean that anyone who is not European or of that extraction is going to stop using our inventions. I highly doubt it. pffft.
Anonymous
May 2, 2021
Who are you to pontificate to us about being "respectful"?
Anonymous
March 7, 2021
When my first son was 2 years old, our library's bilingual story time teacher taught us all about the story of the battle of Puebla - it was especially pertinent because we lived in Pueblo, CO, the sister city of Puebla. I love re-sharing the story with others whenever this time of year comes around. Turns out, although the Pueblans defeated the French on May 5, the French came back later and ended up defeating the armies of Puebla. The reason that Mexican bakeries even exist, kind of sadly, is because the French ruled that part of Mexico for a while - but while they were there, they taught the locals how to bake with wheat flour. Mexican bakeries are so dang delicious because they learned from the masters of the art.