Cinco de Mayo 2021 meaning: what is the Mexican 5th May celebration - and is it the same as Day of the Dead?

While Cinco de Mayo is often confused with Mexican Independence Day and Day of the Dead, it is a separate celebration in its own right with its own history and traditions

Wednesday, 5th May 2021, 11:55 am
Ballet Folklorico dancers from East Picacho Elementary School perform during the Cinco de Mayo in New Mexico, 2017 (Photo: PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images)

Cinco de Mayo 2021 commemorates the 159th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla in 1862.

This is everything you need to know about Cinco de Mayo, and how the date is celebrated.

What does Cinco de Mayo mean - and why is celebrated?

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Cinco de May translates to “fifth of May” which is when the annual celebration is held each year.

This date is significant because it is when the Mexican army defeated the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The day is also known as Battle of Puebla Day.

In 1861, Benito Juárez was elected president of Mexico, and at the time, the country was in financial ruin, and President Juárez issued a moratorium on the repayment of foreign debts. This caused France, Britain and Spain to send naval forces to Mexico demanding payment.

While negotiations saw Britain and Spain recall their forces, French ruler Napoleon III decided to invade in late 1861. The well armed French forces stormed Veracruz and forced the Mexican government and its forces to retreat.

Confident that further victories were on the horizon, the French focused their next attack on the city Puebla de Los Angeles. Anticipating this move, President Juárez organised an army of 2,000 to fight back.

The attack occurred on 5 May 1862, and after a battle that lasted from sunrise to sunset, the French retreated after losing almost 500 soldiers, while the Mexican army lost fewer than 100.

While the battle didn’t hold much significance in the overall war with the French, it represented a symbolic victory that bolstered the resistance.

Cinco de Mayo is often mistaken as Mexican Independence Day, however this is not the case - Mexican Independence Day is celebrated on 16 September.

How is Cinco de Mayo celebrated?

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is mostly observed in the state of Puebla, where the victory occurred, with traditions like military parades, recreations of the battle and other festivities.

While some parts of the country also take part in the celebrations, for many Mexicans, the date is just another day - it’s not a federal holiday, so offices, banks, stores and such are open for business as usual.

In America, the day is more widely celebrated than in Mexico itself, and is viewed by Mexican immigrants as a celebration of their culture and heritage. Awareness for the day was first raised by Latino activists in the 1960s.

In the 1980s, the day became largely commercialised as alcohol companies decided to use it to sell products.

The day is celebrated in the US with the likes of parades, mariachi music and traditional Mexican cuisine.

What is Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that is celebrated on 1 and 2 November, and holds no association with Cinco de Mayo.

Day of the Dead (Dia De Los Muertos) is a two day holiday that celebrates life and death, with families creating offerings to honour their deceased family members that have passed. The holiday is about celebrating rather than mourning.

Other traditions include decorating gravesites with favourite items of the deceased family member and street celebrations with food and alcohol.

What food is eaten on Cinco de Mayo?

Cinco de Mayo offers up an opportunity to try out some authentic Mexican food and recipes.

You could try out the likes of mole poblano, chalupas, tamales, Mexican street corn, chilaquiles and more.

Recipe website Delish offers up 37 different recipes that you can try out for Cinco de Mayo.