Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
KUT is partnering with Austin Vida to highlight arts and culture events happening in Austin’s Latino community. Support comes from the Blanton Museum of Art and its new galleries dedicated to Latino art.

Celebrando Cinco de Mayo

A close-up of someone wearing a mariachi jacket with their hand on their chest, with the neck of a violin below
Patricia Lim
Cinco de Mayo cannot be celebrated without some mariachi music.

We open May by celebrating Cinco de Mayo. Some folks think Mexico celebrates its independence on the 5th of May, but that doesn’t happen until September. The holiday traditions are different in the U.S. and Mexico, which might make it feel like a celebration of Mexico’s independence here.

What does Cinco de Mayo celebrate?

In the 1860s, Mexico was coming out of a civil war. It was in debt and divided. The debts were owed to the European colonial powers of the time: England, Spain and France. The countries decided to sail to Mexico and seize what was owed to them. When the European armies arrived at the port of Veracruz, the French informed its allies it intended to colonize Mexico.

“They went on this colonial adventure in Mexico assuming that it would be much easier than it turned out to be,” Paul Hart, director of the center for international studies at Texas State University, said.

The only way for the French to reach Mexico City was through the city of Puebla. On May 5, 1862, the French marched up a hill toward the Mexican forts in Puebla where the army was waiting for the attack. According to Hart, French military leaders believed they were superior to the Mexicans.

“They just march up and expect them to scatter like other armies in what they used to call the 'third-world global South' had done,” Hart said.

The Mexican army didn't scatter. It started raining, making the climb up the hill more difficult. After a violent melee, the Mexican army was able to force a French retreat.

The battle did not stop the French from eventually colonizing Mexico, but their rule did not last long. The battle of Puebla unified a divided Mexican people. Now, folks around Mexico and the United States celebrate Cinco de Mayo in honor of the fight to stay independent.

“I think, even though Cinco is obviously not Mexican Independence Day, it does also represent independence because the French tried to colonize the place," Hart said. “So, I guess you could say [the country] has two independence days."

How is it different here than in Mexico?

Austin Vida editor and publisher Nancy Flores has celebrated Cinco de Mayo in the United States and in Mexico. She said the celebrations were much more subdued in Mexico City when she lived there.

“You can imagine my culture shock when I came to Austin and there was so much going on,” she said.

Cinco de Mayo has become a celebration to those in the U.S. who can trace back their heritage to Mexico. The Chicano movement of the '60s and '70s used the holiday to celebrate their Mexican pride.

“I think it’s also about highlighting this ‘Sí, se puede’ ['Yes, it can be done'] spirit that the Mexican army embodied,” she said.

How to celebrate

Every year, the City of Austin hosts a Cinco de Mayo Fiesta at Fiesta Gardens in East Austin. This year, it's on Saturday, May 6. The family-friendly event will feature Mexican food, Tejano music, a low-rider vocabulary lesson for kids and more.

Flores said the yearly festival is about more than celebrating Cinco.

“This is the type of event that just feeds the soul and gets you connected to community,” Flores said.

Cinco de Mayo cannot be celebrated without some mariachi music. Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, whom Flores said is regarded as one of the best mariachi bands in the world, will be stopping in Austin this weekend while on a world tour. They will be preforming at ACL Live on Saturday.

“We are so lucky here in Austin to have musicians of their caliber coming here,” she said. “They’re such a global phenomenon; they just finished a tour in Korea, and they were in Spain.”

What else is going on this month?

If you’re looking to take in some cultura beyond this weekend, Flores suggests checking out the Big Squeeze Accordion festival. The best young accordion musicians from all over Texas will compete in various genres of accordion music. The finals will be held at the Bullock Museum on May 13.

For more events happening in May, sign up for Austin Vida’s monthly Cultura guide.

Juan Garcia is a producer at KUT. Got a tip? You can email him at
Related Content