But it is also a frequently misunderstood holiday. Here is what Cinco de Mayo, coming up on Thursday, 5 May, is all about.
What is Cinco de Mayo?
People often mistake Cinco de Mayo for a celebration of Mexican independence, which is not actually correct.
Rather, the holiday celebrates a failed French invasion after a fledgling Mexican state defaulted on debt payments to European governments.
In 1861, Mexico was suffering from financial ruin following years of internal strife. This was exploited by the French President Napoleon III, who thought it would be a good time to try and build an empire there. Mexico had defaulted on debts with Britain and Spain as well, but those two countries negotiated with the country and withdrew their navy.
The French invaded Mexico in late 1861 with well-armed forces and stormed Veracruz, forcing the Mexican government and its forces to retreat into northern Mexico.
Confident of further victories, French forces focused their attention on the city Puebla de Los Angeles. Anticipating the attack, Mexican President Benito Juárez brought together a group of 2,000 men to fight back, many of who were indigenous Mexicans or of mixed ancestry.
When the French finally attacked, on 5 May 1862, the battle lasted from daybreak to early evening. The French ended up retreating after losing almost 500 soldiers, while the Mexicans lost fewer than 100.
Was the battle significant?
Strategically, not really. The battle represented more of a symbolic victory for the Mexican forces and added to the resistance. French forces didn’t leave until 1867, after years of fighting.
Mexicans were helped in part by the end of the Civil War, when the US was able to send its own troops to help out its besieged neighbour.
'Dia de los Muertos' - Day of the dead festival in Mexico
Does all of Mexico celebrate Cinco de Mayo?
People in Puebla celebrate, as that’s where the unlikely victory occurred, but the festivities aren’t nationwide. Cinco de Mayo isn’t a federal holiday so the day is just like any other day for most people in Mexico.
When does Mexico celebrate its independence?
Mexico celebrates its independence on 16 September. On that day in 1810, Mexican revolutionary priest Miguel Hidalgo y Castilla made a famous call to arms for his fellow men and women to resist Spanish colonial government.
Why is it celebrated in the United States?
The holiday is widely seen as a celebration of Mexican cultural heritage for America’s growing Hispanic population.
Latino activists raised awareness for the holiday in the 1960s. In large part, those early holidays in the US were a forum to celebrate the fact that a group of indigenous people were able to successfully hold back French forces.
The holiday has taken off in the US since then and people today celebrate with parades, parties, mariachi music, and traditional Mexican foods.