05/02/2012 05:54 pm ET Updated May 02, 2012

Cinco De Mayo Meaning: What The Mexico Holiday Celebrates

First, it's not Mexican Independence Day. So throw that idea out.

There are a couple of ways to approach the question, "What does Cinco de Mayo mean?"

On a linguistic level, if you don't have Internet access (you do), or an analog Spanish-English dictionary handy, the phrase "Cinco de Mayo" simply means the "fifth of May" in Spanish, or May 5, or even 05/05, depending on how you prefer to write dates.

For many, the day represents nothing more than another excuse to party. Way back in 1994, several Southern Californians explained the mainstream understanding to the Los Angeles Times.

"I think the larger population sees it as a festive day like St. Patrick's Day and an occasion to go to happy hour," UC Irvine Professor Maria Herrera-Sobeck told the paper.

Victor Torres, a student at the time, agreed.

"Many people just see it as an opportunity to have two tacos and a beer," Torres said.

Cinco de Mayo, contrary to popular belief, is not Mexico's Independence Day. That occurs on Sept. 16., or el dieciseis de septiembre, si hablas español.

The holiday, in actuality, marks a major victory for the Mexican Army on May 5, 1862, when 4,000 Mexican troops defeated 8,000 French troops at the Battle of Puebla. The French had decided to attack Mexico after it stopped making interest payments toward a major debt, but a devastating military defeat forever changed the fate of France in the Americas.

The holiday has since spread from its roots in the Southwest and in Southern California, becoming more popular throughout the U.S.. The Associated Press notes:

In Houston, ballet folklorico dancers will ring in Cinco de Mayo by stomping to traditional Mexican music in a city park. New York City will close parts of Spanish Harlem and Queens for street fairs as Mexican flags flap from apartment fire escapes and car antennas. Albuquerque honors the day with a Mariachi concert and free cab rides for those who show their love for Mexico with a little too much Dos Equis XX or tequila. Even West Des Moines, Iowa, has an all-day festival with Mexican food, artwork and live music.

According to MTV, Mexico's real Independence Day causes more celebration south of the border, while liquor companies and Mexican restaurants have promoted Cinco de Mayo stateside.

Mexican Americans often see the day as a source of pride. "One way they can honor their ethnicity is to celebrate this day, even when most don't know why," Jody Agius Vallejo, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and author of Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican-American Middle Class, told AP. But the meaning has morphed over time.

"To others," she added, "this holiday is kind of viewed as a joke because they feel it's their culture that is being appropriated and exploited, and not all are happy with the change."

So when you're gobbling down your next taco or opening another beer this weekend -- Cinco de Mayo falls on a Saturday this year -- perhaps take a moment and reflect on what it is you're actually toasting to.



Cinco De Mayo Celebrations