What is Cinco de Mayo (besides, you know, the fifth of May)?
It's the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, a major triumph in Mexican history. In 1862, Mexican peasants fought French troops sent by Emperor Napoleon III to conquer the country. France's army was way bigger, tougher and more sophisticated. But under the leadership of Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza, the Mexican army won the battle. Alas, the French returned and conquered the country the next year. But the Battle of Puebla boosted Mexico's pride and unity through the period of French occupation, which lasted through 1867.
So, it's Mexico's independence day, right?
Wrong. That's Sept. 16. In the wee hours of that morning in 1810, Mexican priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rang his church bells in the village of Dolores. He shouted the famous Grito de Dolores, a cry for independence. He trained soldiers to revolt against their Spanish rulers. In 1811, the Spaniards captured Hidalgo and put him to death. Now, late at night each Sept. 15, the president of Mexico rings a bell in Mexico City and repeats the Grito de Dolores.
Do people in Mexico even celebrate Cinco de Mayo?
Some Mexican towns host parades, meetings and speeches. It's celebrated heavily in Puebla. But in most of Mexico, the actual Independence Day is the big cheese. A paper published in 2007 by the University of California, Los Angeles, claims Cinco de Mayo is largely an American party that erupted spontaneously among California Latinos after the 1862 victory. In the United States, where 9 percent of the population is of Mexican descent, Cinco de Mayo has become a culture-blind excuse to throw back a few beverages, much like its Irish cousin, St. Patrick's Day.
Where does tequila come from?
Mexico's national liquor is distilled from the fermented sap of the blue agave plant, which has long, spiny leaves and a heart like a pineapple. Indians discovered tequila more than 200 years ago in the Mexican town of the same name. Tequila is different than mescal, which is the stuff with a worm at the bottom of the bottle. Those same caterpillars are deep fried and sold for $40 a dozen at upscale Mexican restaurants. Some folks like them boiled with a hint of lime. And people in certain villages sell salsa infused with ground-up worms. Protein.
Does everyone drink on Cinco de Mayo?
Some restaurants and organizations downplay booze with family-friendly events. Cities in California and Texas have hosted alcohol-free celebrations focused on Mexican heritage. Whatever your choice, don't drive after swilling a bucket of Corona. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has coined the slogan "Amigos don't let amigos drive drunk." One campaign poster features a sombrero-wearing dude in a mug shot with a message: "Drive impaired on Cinco de Mayo and spend seis de Mayo in jail."
Sources: Times files, World Book Encyclopedia, Encarta, U.S. Census, UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture