The fiesta part is right, but most Americans are missing the mark on Cinco de Mayo's true meaning. On Monday, a free event at San Juan College aims to shed some light on this largely misunderstood holiday.
"That Cinco de Mayo is Mexico's independence day is a big misconception," said Brenda Mendez de Andrade, coordinator of San Juan College's Hispanic Latino Center. "Mexico's independence from Spain actually happened on September 16, 1810. Cinco de Mayo commemorates a small battle that took place in 1862 in Puebla, Mexico, between the Mexican and French armies."
Mendez de Andrade explained that at that time in history, there were conflicts between Mexico, France, Great Britain and Spain. Spain and Great Britain agreed to negotiate, but France decided to invade Mexico. The Mexican army, headed by Ignacio Zaragoza, was able to defeat the much larger and more powerful French army, which at that time was considered the world's premier fighting force.
"Mexico didn't have the greatest army, but they were still able to beat France, so this battle became a matter of pride for the Mexican people," she said.
In Mexico, the holiday is called "El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla," which translates to The Day of the Battle of Puebla. With the exception of the town of Puebla and some communities in the southern regions of Mexico, most Mexicans don't celebrate Cinco de Mayo at all, Mendez de Andrade said.
Mendez de Andrade a resident alien who moved to the U.S. from Mexico in 2011, the first of her family to do so said that upon her arrival to the United States she was surprised to discover that more Americans celebrated Cinco de Mayo than Mexicans.
To help enlighten the public about the real meaning of the holiday, Mendez de Andrade, along with the student group AGAVE, which stands for All Great Accomplishments Value Equality, is holding a Cinco de Mayo celebration on Monday. The event will begin with the presentation of a History Channel video explaining the origins of Cinco de Mayo and end with a small fiesta featuring Mexican music and tacos.
The event's co-sponsor, Cruz Chacon, is an administrative assistant in the college's School of Business. Chacon moved to the U.S. from Mexico with her family when she was two years old, and she said her aunts and uncles living in Mexico are perplexed when she mentions that Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
"They laugh and ask why we celebrate it," said Chacon. "It was just a small battle that was won. I think it just gives us another occasion to celebrate."
Chacon said in addition to Puebla, other Mexican communities in Mexico celebrating Cinco de Mayo are border and towns that cater to American tourists.
"I think Monday's event will be a great opportunity for the AGAVE club to educate people about what Cinco de Mayo actually is," said Chacon.
As to how Cinco de Mayo became associated with Mexico's independence, neither Mendez de Andrade nor Chacon have a clue.
"There were other things going on during that time, like Mexican territory being sold to the U.S., so maybe that's why," said Mendez de Andrade.
Never ones to pass up a customer-attracting holiday especially such a colorful and festive one several local restaurants and bars offer Cinco de Mayo events and specials. Most of those contacted said they were either not aware of the meaning of the holiday or believed it commemorates Mexico's independence day.
Lewis McMullen is manager of Clancy's Irish Pub, located on 20th Street. McMullen said Clancy's planned to host a band on Saturday night to draw some of the Cinco de Mayo revelers, and it was also offering beer and appetizer specials on Sunday. McMullen was interested to learn about the true meaning of the holiday.
"I'm actually surprised that Cinco de Mayo isn't Mexico's independence day. I really thought that's what it was," he said.
Aubrey Yates of Kathy's Party Store on East Main Street said that since last week the store has been selling many Mexican-themed party items, and it had almost run out of their inventory.
"I don't really know what Cinco de Mayo means, but I've heard a rumor that it's an Americanized holiday and that the Mexicans don't even celebrate it," she said. "I think it's an excuse to have margaritas, chips and salsa."
Despite the misunderstanding, Mendez de Andrade still feels that anything celebrating Mexican heritage and culture is positive.
"I do believe Cinco de Mayo is something good anything that celebrates the Mexican population is good," she said. "We just don't want people to continue having that misconception."
Leigh Black Irvin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4610. Follow her on Twitter @irvindailytimes.