Cinco de Mayo may literally translate to “Fifth of May,” but there is a lot more to the annual springtime celebration of Hispanic heritage and culture in the United States than the many margarita-soaked festivities that ensue all over the nation. So before you throw on your sombrero and head to tequila town this Cinco de Mayo, take a shotful of these five hechos you may not have known about the holiday.
We drink margaritas on this day because a small, rag-tag group of Mexicans beat the odds and defeated a much larger, well-equipped French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The battle was part of the larger Franco-Mexican War that lasted another five years—France wanted to take over the North American country after a cash-strapped Mexico defaulted on some European loans—and resulted in Mexican victory. The first Cinco de Mayo celebrations are said to have occurred in California not long after the conclusion of the Battle of Puebla, where overjoyed Mexican gold miners whooped and hollered and shot off guns and fireworks.
Since then, Cinco de Mayo has become more of an American celebration of Hispanic heritage and culture than a Mexican holiday. Cinco de Mayo earned widespread adoption in the United States during the 1960s and El Movimento (the Chicano Civil Rights Movement), and Congress passed a resolution in 2005 to recognize the “historical significance” of the holiday.
Los Angeles currently plays host to the world's largest Cinco de Mayo celebration, Fiesta Broadway. Each year, downtown LA blocks off major streets and welcomes hundreds of thousands of people for an afternoon of music, food and crafts in honor of Hispanic heritage. Fiesta Broadway dates back to 1990, and was modeled after Miami's famous Calle Ocho street party.
3. Aye Chihuahua!
Chandler, Arizona may just take the tequila-soaked cake as far as Cinco de Mayo festivities go for its famous Cinco de Mayo chihuahua races. The town's celebration, recognizing the contribution its Hispanic residents have made to the community, features a fun-filled competition that results in cash prizes for the speediest member of the popular Mexican dog breed and the crowning of a King and Queen Chihuahua.
4. One Tequila, Two Tequila...
This famous liquor (and the staple of many a modern Cinco de Mayo celebration) is derived from the agave plant. Its modern incarnation is brewed from the blue agave native to the Jalisco region of Mexico, and dates back to the 1500s when the Spanish occupation introduced the European art of distilling. But before that, Aztec civilization had been brewing a beer-like beverage called pulque from a related agave plant (the maguey) for centuries. Only priests could drink it, and how exactly it was invented is the stuff of myth. Several popular legends include one involving a drunken opossum pulling nectar from the plant, and another asserting that ancient gods sent lightning to split the plant and reveal the nectar to humans.
5. Tambien on this Day in History
Cinco de Mayo shares a date on the calendar with other notable historical events. Carnegie Hall opened on May 5th, 1891. In 1925, John Thomas Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in a Tennessee school, setting the stage for the Scopes Monkey Trials. On May 5th, 1961, NASA launched the first American-manned space flight piloted by Alan Shepard Jr. (Oh, and Paris Hilton was sentenced to serve jail time on May 5th, 2007.)