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Aug 8, 2005 1:02 pm

What Event Does Cinco de Mayo Celebrate?

Eun-Kyung Kim, in the Kansas City Star (May 3, 2004):

It's a holiday often mistakenly celebrated as the Mexican Fourth of July, to the surprise of many Mexican natives.

"Cinco de Mayo has nothing to do with Mexican independence from Spain, far from it," said Guillermo Rosas, who grew up in Mexico City. "If you were to rank the most important celebrations in Mexico, this would probably come a distant third or fourth."

The holiday has come to evoke images of exotic dancers rhythmically stamping to mariachi bands, as well as loaded plates of spicy food and pitchers of margaritas and cerveza. While many Hispanics embrace the holiday as a cultural celebration, just as many lament its escalation into a promotional gimmick.

Cinco de Mayo, or the fifth of May, commemorates an 1862 battle in Puebla, Mexico, in which a small troop of Mexican soldiers defeated a much larger French force. France ultimately displaced the Mexicans, but its rule over Mexico was short-lived.

Today, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated to varying extents throughout Mexico.

"Across the border, it simply is not celebrated very much," said Jose Limon, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. "In the state of Puebla, where the historical events occurred, there is some acknowledgment of it. But other than that, in comparison to the 16th of September, which is truly Mexico's Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo simply doesn't get that much attention."

Rosas said he remembers getting the holiday off from school as a child. Politicians also liked to deliver speeches at the Puebla battle site. But that stopped more than two decades ago, and when Rosas came to the United States in 1995 to attend a doctoral degree program at Duke University, he was amazed by how Americans celebrated Cinco de Mayo with such gusto.

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