It’s your favorite USA expat living in Mexico, am I excited for Cinco de Mayo! Now, before you get all excited and start chugging margaritas, let me give you the lowdown on what this holiday is really all about.

First, let me just say that I love living in Mexico. The food, the culture, the people… it’s all amazing. But sometimes, as an US American, I can’t help but cringe at the way my fellow gringos celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

I mean, have you seen those “Cinco de Drinko” T-shirts? Or those giant sombreros that people wear while downing tequila shots? It’s like they think they’re honoring Mexican culture, but really they’re just perpetuating stereotypes. It’s embarrassing. But, I only see that in the high tourist areas and I live outside a little village so don’t see any of that, thankfully.

And don’t even get me started on the food. Sure, tacos, and guacamole are delicious, but they’re not exactly representative of all the diverse and flavorful cuisine that Mexico has to offer. And no, we don’t eat burritos in Mexico. That’s more of a delicious Tex-Mex thing.

But here’s the thing: Mexicans don’t really celebrate Cinco de Mayo like that. It’s not a holiday. It’s not México Independence Day, that is on September 16th. Back in 1810 México told Spain to get out.

What is it really?

What it is actually is a remembrance of Mexico’s victory over the French during the 1862 Battle of Puebla. An outnumbered Mexican army defeated the invading French forces at the small town of Puebla de Los Angeles during the Franco-Mexico War. The retreat of the French troops represented a massive victory for the people of Mexico. It symbolizes the country’s ability to defend its sovereignty against a powerful foreign nation.

The first American Cinco de Mayo celebrations date back to the 1860s,when Mexicans living in California commemorated the victory over France in Puebla. At that time, the United States was in its own Civil War. News of the underdog Mexican army beating back Napoleon III’s forces gave new strength to California’s Latinos, who sought to stop the advances of the Confederate army.

The tradition of celebrating Cinco de Mayo has continued in Los Angeles without interruption since 1862 although the original reason and the history have gotten lost.

Modern History

A century later, Chicano activists rediscovered the holiday and look at it as a symbol of ethnic pride.

But the party-filled Cinco de Mayo that Americans celebrate today didn’t become popular until U.S. beer companies began targeting the Spanish-speaking population in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. is primarily a celebration of Mexican-American Hispanic heritage, with the largest event in Los Angeles, California. Something to be proud of for Hispanics but mostly a US-American tradition now.

Here In Local México

That being said, there are still some fun ways to celebrate Cinco de Mayo while in Mexico. For one thing, you can’t go wrong with a nice plate of tacos or some chilaquiles. And if you’re feeling adventurous, try some mezcal or tequila straight up instead of hiding it in a sugary tourist margarita.

But if you really want to impress your Mexican friends on Cinco de Mayo, try learning a little bit about the history behind the holiday. It’s not just an excuse to drink tequila and wear sombreros, after all.

Many Expats go to expat-friendly restaurants for an enjoyable meal. The nearby big-city Mérida has an English library that caters to Expats, and they are serving nachos and playing lotería, a Mexican game similar to bingo.

And as for me, I’ll be celebrating Cinco de Mayo like a true Expat living in Mexican: by lying around in my pool and watching Star Trek in Spanish. After all, it’s just another day here.

So, to all my fellow gringos out there: let’s celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a bit of respect and dignity, and maybe leave the fake mustaches and sombreros at home. After all, we’re guests in this beautiful country, and it’s important to show a bit of cultural sensitivity. Now, where did I put that bottle of mezcal?