Cinco de Mayo: History and Misconceptions

So what’s the big deal about Cinco de Mayo?  Even the people of Mexico scratch their heads when they hear of the festivities taking place in the United States.  In order to understand the significance that Americans have placed on the fifth day of May, we must look to mid-19th century American and Mexican history.

Cinco de Mayo has many misconceptions, such as the history and the food. The origins of some "Mexican" food is also shrouded in mystery.The French began a period of occupation in Mexico following the end of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 in which the United States emerged victorious.  Mexico plunged into economic despair, and a Civil War only worsened matters.  President Benito Juarez’s moratorium suspending payment of all foreign debt, issued on July 17, 1861, drew the ire of Mexico’s creditors, namely, England, Spain, and France, and the three European nations invaded Mexico to get the payments owed to them.  The English and Spanish eventually withdrew, but not the French, who wanted to establish an empire under Napoleon III and, possibly, challenge the rise of the United States.  The following year, on May 5, 1862, despite a well-equipped French army, the ill-equipped Mexican army defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla.

The United States and the state of Puebla in Mexico make Cinco de Mayo a day of celebration, which typically includes lots of Mexican food and alcohol.  What, then, constitutes Mexican food?  While certain beer and hard liquor companies have roots planted firmly in Mexican soil, you may be surprised to find out that a number of food items thought to originate from Mexico have, in fact, originated elsewhere.

“Taquito”, or “little taco”

  • Restaurant/location: El Indio in San Diego, California
  • Creator: Ralph Pesqueira Sr.
  • Year introduced: 1940

The “Chimichanga”, or “Thingamajig”

  • Restaurant/location: El Charro Cafe in Tucson, Arizona
  • Creator: Monica Flin (by accident)
  • Year introduced: 1922

“Fajitas”, or “Tacos al Carbon”

  • Restaurant/location: The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation in Houston, Texas
  • Creator: Head chef at Ninfa’s (name unknown)
  • Year popularized: 1973

Margaritas

  • A number of stories lay claim to the mixed drink’s origins.  Spurious at best, I will only list that the years the margarita was “invented”: 1934, 1936, 1941, 1948, and 1971.

Does the United States have any reason at all for celebrating Cinco de Mayo?  Even though the loss at the Battle of Puebla was a minor setback before France’s eventual occupation, the United States did ask the French to leave and they complied.  The U.S. state of California, with a long history tied to Mexico, celebrated Cinco de Mayo since the 1860s in support of Mexico’s resistance to French rule.  Many people probably would not even think about California taking on a supportive role as a reason to hold a celebration.  Besides the “Mexican” food that people eat on Cinco de Mayo, the most persistent misconception about Cinco de Mayo is that it is Mexican Independence Day, which is itself celebrated on September 16.  Despite so many misconceptions that surround Cinco de Mayo, the United States and the state of Puebla in Mexico will continue celebrating the commercialized holiday.

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Francis M. Unson

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7 Responses to “Cinco de Mayo: History and Misconceptions”

  1. Nova Says:

    Haha – thanks for the fun facts! I did a fun cinco de mayo fiesta costume video in light of the upcoming holiday over this last weekend and I was definitely under the impression that a lot of the food you listed above originated in Mexico. The blog above gave me a few chuckles. Will have to pass along to my friends this weekend. =D

    • Francis Unson Says:

      The article that listed the food items surprised me, too!

      You what this means? If the taquito, Chimichanga, fajita, and margarita aren’t Mexican food, what is?? lol

  2. Gavin Head Says:

    As the late, great Paul Harvey would say, “And now we know… the rest of the story.” Good work!

  3. Cinco de Mayo Celebrations « Flower Blossoms' Blog Says:

    […] Cinco de Mayo, which is Spanish for the “Fifth of May”, is a Mexican holiday that commemorates the Mexican victory against French forces on May 5, 1862.  The holiday is widely celebrated in the United States of America, more so than in Mexico itself.  People should not confuse this holiday with Mexico’s Independence Day, which takes place on September 16th.  Cinco de Mayo is a fun and exciting holiday to celebrate with the family or at a public event.  If you choose not to celebrate at home, Olvera Street in Los Angeles, 4th Street in Santa Ana, and Virginia Park in Santa Monica all have public activities for this holiday. […]

  4. Cinco de Mayo Recipes « Flower Blossoms' Blog Says:

    […] de Mayo Recipes By Francis Unson Thinking of ways to celebrate Cinco de Mayo?  Why not make a delicious meal for the family!  It’s always nice to gather together for a […]

  5. Megan, Lancaster, CA Says:

    just don’t order a burrito in South America unless you want to get some REALLY strange looks.

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