In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is a day reserved for consuming traditional Mexican food, tequila, and beer in mass quantity. The holiday, which honors Mexican-American culture, has become a marketing ploy for companies looking to target a particular demographic. In Mexico, however, the holiday celebration stays true to the date’s historical roots, as May 5 marks the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, where the Mexican army defeated the French advance in 1862. Today, the city of Puebla and the surrounding region, commemorate the battle with an annual military reenactment and a parade that features mariachi music, colorful costumes, flamenco dancing, and fireworks.
History of Cinco de Mayo
Cinco de Mayo—Spanish for “the fifth of May”—marks an annual celebration of Mexico’s victory over France on the very day that the Battle of Puebla took place. In 1861, French forces invaded Veracruz, Mexico, in an attempt to establish an empire after Mexican president, Benito Juárez, defaulted on debts to European governments. Mexico’s economy had been in a state of turmoil for many years, and while debts had been forgiven by British and Spanish leaders, France’s Napoleon III wouldn’t let up. He sent troops of 6,000 French soldiers to march upon the small town of Puebla on May 5, 1862. They were met by 2,000 Mexican soldiers—mostly ill-prepared indigenous men armed with machetes, waiting to defend their land. Even though they were gravely outnumbered, the Mexican army won, killing approximately 500 French soldiers in the battle. In Mexico, the holiday of Cinco de Mayo is a symbolic day of remembrance, different from Mexico’s Independence Day (or Día de la Independencia de México), and complete with school closings and regional festivities in Puebla.
Cinco de Mayo Parade
Cinco de Mayo in Puebla begins with a reenactment of the battle itself, where people dress up as French and Mexican soldiers and act out the war. Once the Mexicans overtake the French, the real celebration begins with a civic parade featuring more than 20,000 performers and community members in elaborate costumes, and massive, colorful floats. School children and soldiers march alongside mariachi musicians and flamenco dancers dressed in ornate outfits. The celebration commences with a meal of street tacos and other traditional dishes, hung piñatas filled with sweets, and fireworks. The celebration typically starts around 10 a.m. and lasts for several hours.
International Mole Festival
Puebla, Mexico is a foodie’s haven, so it’s only natural for the city to host an International Mole Festival as part of their Cinco de Mayo festivities. Mole is a marinade or sauce made from a complex mixture of ingredients, including chiles, tomatillos, dried fruit, and spices. There are various types of mole sauces (black, red, yellow, and green), and many regions have their own special version of the traditional recipe. Puebla’s version, mole poblano, is famous and features chocolate as a main ingredient.
The city held its first International Mole Festival as part of its 2012 Cinco de Mayo celebration (also commemorating the 150th anniversary of the battle). Since then, this gastronomic staple is included in the annual celebration and typically features culinary discussions, exhibitions, and tastings for an entire week leading up to the holiday.
Other Things to Do in Puebla
Only a two-hour drive from Mexico City, near the Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl volcanoes, Puebla is the fourth largest city in Mexico. Its cathedral, palaces, and churches of Santo Domingo, San Francisco, and the Jesuit Church have earned Puebla’s heritage-packed historical center the coveted title of a UNESCO World Heritage site. There’s so much to do in this region, even outside of Cinco de Mayo season, like peruse the Museo Internacional del Barroco (a museum of Baroque art), marvel at the archeological exhibits at the Amparo Museum, or shop for hand-painted Talavera pottery, a style that originated in Puebla. This culinary destination, famous for its mole poblano and chiles en nogada (chiles in cream sauce), boasts tons of great restaurants, too. Try a cemita sandwich at the hip Mural de Los Poblanos or sample the tacos at Las Ranas. The city is also a 30-minute drive from the town of Cholula, where you can visit Zona Arqueológica de Cholula, the world’s largest pyramid.