Cinco de Mayo is a traditional Mexican holiday with a fascinating history—but perhaps even more interesting is the fact that it's now become more popular in the United States than in Mexico. The holiday commemorates the Mexican army's victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, but it's primarily celebrated in Puebla, which is just one of Mexico's 31 states. So how did the holiday come to be such a large celebration in America?
After the Mexican Civil War in 1915, many Mexican people came to the United States and settled in the southern states. When they came to America, they brought with them their customs, traditions, and holidays—including Cinco de Mayo.
So the American people began celebrating Cinco de Mayo alongside their Mexican neighbors, but oftentimes they didn't really understand what they were celebrating; to them it was just a fun celebration of Mexican culture. Over the last hundred or so years, the holiday has taken off in America, with many people using it as an excuse to eat tacos and drink margaritas, rather than celebrating what the holiday actually stands for.
If you've celebrated this way in the past, don't sweat it: Take this as an opportunity to learn more about the history of the holiday and plan a more appropriate celebration this year.
Related: The History of Cinco de Mayo
How to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo Respectfully
We talked to chef Claudia Sandoval, the winner of MasterChef U.S. season six, judge on MasterChef Latino, and best-selling author of the cookbook Claudia's Cocina: A Taste of Mexico ($14, Amazon), about how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo without appropriating the holiday.
Sandoval's family originates from Mexico, so she grew up learning to cook traditional Mexican dishes and currently owns a modern Mexican bakery called Cochi Dorado in Southern California. She told us that while it is important to be culturally conscious, it's totally possible to celebrate the holiday without appropriating the Mexican culture.
"One of the wonderful things about Mexican culture is that we love to share our holidays and customs with other people," she says. "We are the type of culture that welcomes you into our home, and however humble our plates, or offerings, you will always feel welcome to partake in familial and cultural activities."
However, it's still important to make sure you're participating in a respectful way. "As you choose to celebrate and partake in cultural holidays, we recommend doing your research and understanding the meaning behind those customs, and reasons for celebration," Sandoval says. "Cinco de Mayo isn't about celebrating independence. It is about celebrating the ability to stand up to forces beyond measure."
So how do you know whether you're celebrating the culture or appropriating it? Sandoval says it all comes down to educating yourself. "You may be culturally appropriating if you are celebrating inaccurately by not doing your homework," she says. "Mexican culture is about so much more than tacos and tequila. We encourage you to learn about our customs, our traditions, and our history. A little research goes a long way when you are trying to partake in festivities that belong to another culture and that don't continue to reinforce inaccurate stereotypes."
Ways to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo in 2021
Here are Claudia's best suggestions for how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo this year. Keep in mind that no matter how you celebrate, you should still follow local COVID-19 guidelines and practice social distancing whenever possible.
1. Share the Real Story
Many Americans are quick to celebrate with tacos and margaritas without understanding the cultural significance of the holiday. Before partaking in any celebrations, take a few minutes to learn about the holiday and educate others you're celebrating with. "Changing stereotypes is something that we need help with, and if you do your part, we can share how awesome the truth behind Cinco de Mayo is," Sandoval says.
2. Support Mexican Businesses
While there are plenty of chain restaurants that offer Cinco de Mayo deals, Sandoval suggests supporting locally instead: Skip the Taco Bell drive-thru and order carry-out from a local Mexican-owned business in your area. "Whether it's your local Mexican Restaurant, or a local Mexican pottery store, supporting small business owners helps not just your local economy but it helps to support the Mexicans who's culture you enjoy celebrating," she says.
3. Support Mexican Arts and Museums
This holiday isn't just about the food! "So often we dismiss the value of true Mexican artesanías," Sandoval says. "If you have a local art gallery, museum, or artist, show up and support those artists and museums that are honoring Mexican history and culture." If you're not familiar with any in your area, a quick internet search can help you find local venues.
4. Eat the Food!
It's important to make sure you're celebrating Mexican heritage and not treating the day as just an excuse to go out for margaritas—but food is such a large part of the Mexican culture, that it can be one of the best (and tastiest!) ways to celebrate. Order carry-out at a local restaurant, or try making your own at home. Sandoval recommends Mole Poblano, a spicy and delicious traditional Mexican dish that originates from the city of Puebla, or Enchiladas Poblanas that are made with poblano chiles.