Debunking El Cinco de Mayo

To celebrate Cinco de Mayo, we’re providing excerpts from El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, by David E. Hayes-Bautista, which asks a curious question: Why is the holiday so widely celebrated across the United States and scarcely celebrated in Mexico?

Although the holiday celebrates a Mexican victory of the French at Puebla on May 5, 1862, the answer to this question is not to be found in Mexico. It is found instead in California, Nevada, and Oregon during the Gold Rush and the American Civil War—for the Cinco de Mayo is not, in its origins, a Mexican holiday at all, but rather an American one, created by Latinos in California in the middle of the nineteenth century.

It wasn’t until David had been asked time and time again by journalists, newspapers, and interviewers about this curious fact that he set out to chronicle the history of Cinco de Mayo. And there were some personal moments that drove him to find the answer to this question, as well:

The tremendous growth in Spanish-language media during the 1980s and 1990s attracted a number of reporters and journalists from Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, and, of course, Mexico. They too were puzzled by the celebration of the Cinco de Mayo in the United States…. A few years earlier, I happened to be in Guadalajara on May 5, so I had hurried downtown, expecting to find parades, music, dancers, and orators. I thought the center of action would be the cathedral plaza, so I picked out a spot on the sidewalk and waited to see the activities…and waited…and waited. Hours later, I returned to my cousin’s house, disappointed. Rather than witness the most spectacular Cinco de Mayo festivities of my life, I was witness to the fact that it is not a major celebration in Mexico.


David E. Hayes-Bautista is Professor of Medicine and Director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of La Nueva California: Latinos in the Golden State, also from UC Press.