The Story and Spanish of Cinco de Mayo
¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo a todos! Today is May 5, Cinco de Mayo in Spanish. And if you’re anywhere in America, you probably know why I’m wishing you for the day. For those who are still stumped, this is a major Mexican holiday. One that involves a lot of margarita, tortilla chips, guacamole, and partying. In my opinion, today is also one of the best days to hang out in a Mexican neighborhood if you can.
What makes this day unique is that it’s perhaps the only Mexican holiday that’s not even a holiday in Mexico. More on that shortly. A lot has already been written about Cinco de Mayo which is why I’m not gonna reinvent the wheel. This article will quickly run you through some of the key things and trivia you ought to know about the day. Once done, we will tackle a little Cinco de Mayo vocabulary using some of my tried and tested hacks. Ready to roll? Vamonos (Let’s go)!
Cinco de Mayo Facts
No Big Deal in Mexico
Shocking isn’t it? What’s even more shocking is that this day is not even a national holiday in the very country it belongs to! That being said, public schools throughout Mexico do get a day off. But other than than, it’s just business as usual.
The state of Puebla – where the event this day commemorates took place – does enjoy a holiday though. As does Veracruz next door. The rest of the country just goes about its business like nothing happened.
The day, however, is a blast among the Mexicans living in the United States. How ironic, no? Blame it on clever marketing. And Cinco de Mayo isn’t the only one. Ever wondered how St. Patrick’s Day is bigger in America than in Ireland? To most Americans, St. Patty’s is all but an excuse to get drunk like there were no tomorrow. Nothing more, nothing less. Same story with Cinco de Mayo. To most, it’s a mere excuse to get stuffed with an ungodly amount of mole, tortilla chips, and margaritas.
It’s not only Mexico’s northern neighbors who do Cinco de Mayo. The day seems to have caught on in some of the most unexpected parts of the world as well. For example, a Cinco de Mayo skydiving event is held in a club near Vancouver every year. And a Cinco de Mayo Street Festival is the highlight of the day in Windsor, Ontario. Many pubs throughout Canada hold special events commemorating the day too.
Even the Caribbeans do this day better than Mexico. Particularly in places like Montego Bay, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. I have also heard of commemorative events in places as unlikely as France, New Zealand, Australia, the UK – even Japan!
Not Independence Day
Patriotic as the day might feel, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. Yes there are flags and mariachi bands all over the place. But that still doesn’t make it the day you always confused it with. The first clue should be the very fact that Cinco de Mayo is not even a statutory holiday in Mexico. What country would make its own day of independence an optional holiday?
Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16. Way behind Cinco de Mayo. Cinco de Mayo commemorates another event, the battle of Puebla. There was a time Mexico went on a war with the French who were eager to colonize the country. The battle was a bitter one and you wouldn’t have wagered your pretty penny on Mexico winning it. The French were way too seasoned in their game and Mexico was not even an underdog.
But when you get help from unexpected sources, unexpected things happen. The United States decided to play the good Samaritan to their southern neighbor and tipped the battle in Mexico’s favor. In 1862, the underdogs prevailed in what is known as the Battle of Puebla. This victory seems to have served as a mighty effective lesson. That’s because no European power has invaded a New-World country ever since. You can see why this day has become a symbol of Mexican pride today. Mexicans also refer to the day as El Día de la Batalla de Puebla.
Cinco de Mayo commemorates the battle of Puebla. So it’s obvious that all major traditions of the day center around this state. And Veracruz too, to some extent.
The city of Puebla in the state of Puebla is the fourth largest in all of Mexico. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So if you can afford a trip, you know Puebla is every bit worthy of a consideration. Especially on this day. Here, the fiesta kind of begins mid-April and goes on for about an entire month! Puebla folks mark this period on their calendars as La Feria de Puebla.
- Reenactment: Americans reenact their Civil War history all the time. The Spaniards too had their own thing going on with the Moors which is reenacted every year. Same way, the residents of Puebla reenact the battle of Puebla on this day. The event begins around mid-afternoon, right after the parade, and runs well until sundown. Toward the end, the final “battle” takes place between the French and the Mexicans. Amidst much cannon-roars, smoke, rifle-shots, and gritos (shouts). As you can imagine, there’s a lot of costumes, flags, and fireworks involved. Yes, Puebla is as fun as you can imagine on this day.
- Parade: This parade is the highlight of the day in Puebla. Tens of thousands of proud Mexicans join in for the spectacle. This includes soldiers, policemen, mariachis, students, etc. Also included are dozens of spectacular floats flaunting various aspects of Mexican history and culture. The parade starts at around 11:00 AM and typically traces a 2-mile course. This route, of course, is not permanent and like many things in Mexico, can change at the last minute. There are also peppy speeches by local politicians and government servants if you care. I find them boring though.
- Mariachi: Cinco de Mayo is all about patriotism and the Mexican pride. And it’s all about having fun. No fiesta is complete without music. And no music is as quintessentially Mexican as the good old mariachi. This should explain why mariachi is so integral to a day like Cinco de Mayo. You will hear them everywhere in Puebla – at the parades, in the streets, at bars, at parks, you name it. Many aficionados even go the extent of dressing up as one – in charros! Try it out if you can. It’s fun, even if you can’t play the guitarra. What better way to soak up the culture than dressing up like one of them?
- Avocado and Mole: Just like mariachi, avocado and mole symbolize Mexico. At least that’s how the Americans see them, even the Chicanos. That’s why wherever you live in America, you would like to have these on your menu today. Avocado is native to Mexico and a key ingredient in many traditional Mexican dishes. This makes it all the more a symbol of Mexican pride. Same story with the yummy mole. Just beware, there’s a reason Mexican cuisine is notorious for its spiciness. There are several variants of mole in Mexico. So if you want to stay true to the day, go for mole poblano (mole from Puebla). That’s the way the people of Puebla make their mole.
- Margarita: On the subject of drinks, you might wonder why not tequila. I do too. But no, it’s the humble margarita that takes the spotlight today. Don’t ask me why but that’s how they roll. Mole and margarita have almost become the staple of the day in most Mexican households in America. So remember, it’s not tequila, it’s not mezcal, it’s not Corona®. It’s margarita. By the way, margarita is a cocktail. And in case you’re sulking over tequila, it’s already one of the things that make up this cocktail. Along with lime juice and a few other things that I don’t know about. Happy now?
Flags are everywhere on this day because what else says Mexican pride louder? This makes bandera a pretty important word today. Bandera derives from banda, Spanish for band. Thus it’s safe to say bandera is to banda what banner is to band. You can already see a semblance between bandera and banner, can’t you?
If you happen to be in Spain, here’s a fun colloquial idiom involving bandera: de bandera. It means fantastic or terrific. One expression you are likely to hear in patriotic contexts is jurar bandera. As you can guess, it means to swear allegiance. Izar la bandera is another common idiom of this day; it means to hoist or raise the flag.
Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle, an important one at that. That makes batalla the single most relevant word for the occasion. I doubt you need any memory hook for this word as batalla and battle already sound and look similar enough. Both descend from Latin battuālia.
Off-context, batalla doesn’t have to involve a physical fight. It can also refer to a struggle, even if its merely an emotional one. I think battle has that usage too in some contexts, e.g., when someone is battling cancer.
And just so you know, batalla can also refer to the wheelbase of your car. Or that of any vehicle for that matter. And trust me, I am just as clueless about the connection there as you are.
Charro (the Mariachi Costume)
Charro is as Mexican as it gets. The word has a range of meanings, all pertaining to the Mexican countryside. So far as etymology goes, charro goes back to Basque txaro. That means it a rather tricky word to memorize. Just picture a seedy salon in an old frontier town. Just outside the salon, a rustic cowboy is sitting in a creaky chair with his horse tied right next to him. This image of a charro in a chair will help you remember that charro refers to a cowboy, a Mexican one to be precise.
If you’ve ever seen a mariachi singer, you’ll notice how similar his costume is to that of a charro. That’s why the word has also come to refer to the costume itself as well.
In Spain, charro refers to a person from Salamanca. But that’s not relevant here; just a little trivia to keep you from falling asleep.
Back in Mexico, charro can also be used as an adjective and in that avatar it can mean corrupt, showy, or gaudy.
Cinco has to be important on a day that goes by Cinco de Mayo, don’t you think? If you’re having a hard time memorizing it, just picture Titanic sinking with its five masts. I know Titanic had only four masts but we can make it five in our little imagination, can’t we? The sinking cinco?
A good thing about cinco is that it can mean not only five but also fifth, but only in the context of dates. Otherwise fifth is quinto.
In Guatemala, the word also refers to the game of marbles. And in Chile and Costa Rica, it’s a five-cent coin.
Battle is batalla but war is guerra. If you hear a Mexican pronounce the word, you’ll hardly hear the first letter. This makes it come off as /wer-rah/ more than /gwair-rah/. That doesn’t sound too different from war, does it? And that’s because the two words share a common history.
If that doesn’t sut it for you, try guerrilla warfare. Rings a bell? That’s right, guerrilla derives from guerra. It’s one of the several words English borrowed from Spanish.
If you can remember guerra, you should also try dar guerra. It’s a fun idiom meaning to be a pain in the neck or to be annoying.
Maracas (a Musical Instrument)
Maraca is a kind of rattle filled with pebbles and used as a rhythm instrument. Maracas are typically used in pairs and are native to Latin America. The word don’t have an English translation just like guacamole and piñata don’t. These things are quite a staple during parades and fiestas. No Mexican celebration is complete without music and dancing. And no music and dance session is complete without las maracas.
Be very careful not to use the word in the wrong context when you’re in Chile though. There, maraca is a vulgar slang for a prostitute and I don’t know why. Sometimes, also for a homosexual person. Same goes for Argentina. Just try not to use the word in Chile and Argentina.
Despite what I say, rebozo is not just any shawl. It’s a very Mexican thing. Very colorful, typically rectangular, and easy to identify as Mexican. You’ll know when you see one. On Cinco de Mayo, it’s common to see Mexican women proudly sporting these as a show of patriotism. Tradition!
Rebozo also gives us some cool idioms, such as sin rebozo (openly) and de rebozo (secretly). If that’s not enough, we also get rebozar, a verb that means to coat in batter or breadcrumbs. Rebozar is always used with the preposition de or en, not con.
Memorizing rebozo is easy. Just imagine living in the Prohibition Era where you have to carry your moonshine in secret. How do you do that? Easy, you wrap yourself in a rebozo and hide your booze inside it. Booze in a rebozo – How’s that for a headline?
Again, this is not just any blanket. Serape is a very Mexican thing and easy to identify when you see one. That being said, it’s safe to use the word for just any blanket or rug in general when in Mexico.
In this context, we’re referring to the actual serape. You don’t wrap these around yourself while in bed to stay warm. You wear them as cloaks. They are almost thick as blankets but made to be worn around. Like you would expect, these are very common at any Cinco de Mayo shindig because they reflect the Mexican culture and tradition so well.
Having a hard time memorizing it? Just imagine a snake hiding in your serape while you’re at a Cinco de Mayo parade. A serpent in your serape – it will never let you forget the day. Or the word!
So that’s all you need to know about Cinco de Mayo for now. The rest is all about actually going out and experiencing the day for yourself. Instead of reading too much about it, just check out a bunch of videos on YouTube. That is if you live impractically far from any Hispanic community.
I have already blurted out more than I planned to. Hope you enjoyed learning. If you’re around a Latino neighborhood, please don’t miss out on the opportunity. Oh and please do share your experiences in a comments below. I am super-eager to know what it was like at one of those parades. The food, the piñatas, the music, the dance – Tell us about all of it!