Elaborate costumes, festive parades, mariachi music, and traditional dances—all for Cinco de Mayo! In Mexico, the fifth of May is a minor holiday that is primarily observed in Mexico City and the state of Puebla where the Battle of Puebla took place. Conversely, in the United States, the holiday has evolved into a celebration of Hispanic heritage. Unfortunately, much of that celebration employs stereotypical perceptions of Mexican culture. Cinco de Mayo’s meaning has gotten so shuffled over the years that its origins and significance have become muddied; party-goers don’t really know what they are celebrating.
A Very Brief History of Cinco de Mayo
Because we live in the United States, we do not spend much time teaching Mexican history. Many Americans mistake Cinco de Mayo for Mexico’s Independence Day, which is observed on September 16th. However, the real importance of Cinco de Mayo is that it provided some much-needed national unity after many years of war. In 1861, Mexico’s economy was in ruins due to its revolution against Spain, the Mexican-American War, and a civil war; all within a span of about forty years. The country’s financial situation caused President Benito Juarez to default on the loans that Mexico had from Great Britain, Spain, and France.
While Great Britain and Spain reached an agreement with Juarez, Napoleon III of France saw an opportunity to defeat a weak country and colonize it. He landed his troops in Veracruz and began marching them toward Mexico City. Near the village of Puebla, Napoleon’s men met strong resistance from a poorly armed militia who were able to defeat the French army on May 5, 1862. This victory was an important one because it instilled a sense of national pride in a country that was torn apart by civil war just a few years earlier.
The French did eventually takeover Mexico City, and Napoleon III installed a relative, Archduke Maximillian of Austria, as the ruler in 1864. His reign was short-lived, however, because President Abraham Lincoln sent troops to aid the Mexicans as soon as our own Civil War was wrapped up.
A More Meaningful Way to Celebrate
Beyond the art projects and crafts that are typically made to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, there are other ideas to add depth to this holiday, as well as honor the rich culture and heritage of Mexico. Start with the History Channel’s succinct, three-minute video that explains the events leading up to the Battle of Puebla and the origins of Cinco de Mayo. Afterward, students can research one of the famous figures from Mexico’s history, collaborate on a project, and collect the projects in one class book. Some prominent people to include are: Benito Juarez, General Zaragosa, Emiliano Zapata, Guillermo González Camarena, and Octavio Paz.
Mexico’s diverse climatic regions provide a ready-made geography lesson. Have your class investigate these areas and compare them to similar regions in the United States. Then, encourage them to research the animals that live in each region. Mexico ranks first in the world for reptile biodiversity. Everyone will be in awe of the more than 720 species of snakes, tortoises, lizards and alligators.
Three-Dimensional Maps and Folktales
Middle and secondary learners can work in small groups to draw contour maps. Have them first build three-dimensional models out of clay. Then, they can make marks on the models to indicate varying altitudes. Using fishing line, have them slice through the models and trace each section’s outline onto a blank map of Mexico.
During reading time, introduce Mexican folktales. See if your class can identify the similarities between myths and legends from all over the world. “Pedro the Trickster” is well known in Latin America and can be compared to the Anansi stories. Children might recognize elements from The Little Engine that Could when they read “The Little Red Ant and the Great Big Crumb.” See if they can find parallels between “The Bear Prince” and “Cupid and Psyche.”
With a little planning, Cinco de Mayo can deepen your students’ appreciation for Mexican heritage without the stereotypes often associated with such celebrations.
Other Ways to Incorporate Cinco de Mayo:
For grades 6-12, pupils will reenact the Battle of Puebla. Through the activity, they will gain a better understanding for the characters involved, as well as the events leading to the battle. They also learn the traditional dance “La Raspa.”
Middle school and secondary students trace the immigration patterns of Mexicans to the United States and make graphs with their data. They must use two resources and write a summary of their findings. This is a great way to combine math and historical research.
Music appreciation and culture are combined when elementary learners listen to a variety of Mexican mariachi music. They discuss the mood of each piece, and then create their own rhythm instrument to use in a celebration.