The fifth of May--known as Cinco de Mayo--is not, as is often mistakenly thought, the date Mexico declared independence from Spanish colonial rule. Rather, the holiday commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla, where Mexicans defeated French colonists who were trying to expand into Mexico. General Ignacio Zaragoza led the rag-tag forces who proved that, after its hard-won independence (back in 1821), Mexico wasn’t about to be subjected to foreign rule again. Puebla wasn’t the decisive battle (the war lasted five more years), but it galvanized the Mexican spirit.
Cinco de Mayo is to Mexicans in Mexico much like St. Patrick’s Day is to the Irish in Ireland—important but celebrated far more enthusiastically by those outside the country. In Puebla, of course, there’s a fiesta to mark the historical event. But for the rest of Mexico, it’s more of a bank holiday. American cities with large Mexican populations, however, celebrate with colorful parades, street fests, folklórico dancing, mariachi bands, and of course, plenty of food and drink.