Before you indulge in tacos, tamales, and plenty of cerveza, take a moment to appreciate the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo. 
Credit: Photo: Alison Miksch

Cinco de Mayo is the most widely celebrated Mexican holiday in America―and one of the most mixed-up, often referred to incorrectly as Mexico's independence day. That doesn't crimp the parties that unfold from Los Angeles to San Antonio to Nueva York, of course.

However, knowing the real story behind Cinco de Mayo can help you enjoy the festivities a little more, just as recalling the underdog-American victory over Britain adds extra zing to our Fourth of July. Here's what really happened.

Mexico began its struggle for freedom by declaring independence from Spain on September 16, 1810―some 50 years ahead of the conflict that would inspire today's fiestas. The intervening decades were rife with political turmoil. By 1861, the nation's coffers were so depleted that President Benito Juárez suspended payments to foreign debtors for two years. France's Napoleon III saw this default as his chance to claim assets by force, establish French colonies in Latin America, and curb the growing influence of the United States.

In 1862, on the fifth of May―cinco de mayo―Mexico defeated a French force at the Battle of Puebla, 100 miles east of Mexico City. Although the ragtag Mexican army was eventually conquered by a heavily reinforced French assault, the Batalla de Puebla came to represent Mexican unity and its willingness to defend against an imperialist state bent upon conquest. Ironically, though, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated far more zealously in the United States than in Mexico. It's largely because Mexican-Americans adopted the holiday and turned it into an event of such camaraderie that it has been increasingly popular with people of other backgrounds and cultures.

This American popularization of Cinco de Mayo may also be due, in large part, to the beautiful weather in early May. In September, when Mexico's real independence day falls, many people are preoccupied with football and the beginning of school. In May, on the other hand, the weather is pleasant and nature is in full bloom. Whether Mexican-American or Irish-American, people around the country find it the perfect time for parades, Mexican-style picnics in the park, and backyard outings.

Now that you know the real history behind this spirited holiday, throw your best Cinco de Mayo party yet by making our healthy, easy-to-prepare Mexican and Mexican-inspired recipes. And whether you're celebrating with tacos, enchiladas, or margaritas, take time to enjoy this special day with friends and family.