Despite the popularity of celebrating Cinco de Mayo in the U.S., most Americans don’t know the history behind the celebration—and some falsely believe that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day. However, the true history of Cinco de Mayo involves a small, outnumbered, and out-armed force of Mexican soldiers turning back a conquering army.
In April 1862, the French army marched toward Puebla, Mexico’s fourth largest city, on its way to Mexico’s capital of Mexico City. The French had not suffered a defeat in the nearly 50 years since the Battle of Waterloo. And they vastly outnumbered the Mexican forces, which were mostly composed of inexperienced, hungry soldiers with subpar weapons. In the face of overwhelming odds, the Mexican forces triumphed, and that triumph happened on May 5, also known as Cinco de Mayo.
What many Americans also don’t know is that the French sought to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy in the American Civil War, which was raging just north of Puebla at the same time. Had Mexico’s army not fought and defeated the French forces, American history might be radically different!
Cinco de Mayo is an excellent example of the long friendship that has existed between Mexico and the United States, particularly against European invaders. It’s also a great vehicle to teach students about Mexican and American history and culture.
We’ve pulled together some classroom activities to help you celebrate Cinco de Mayo with your students and teach them the true history of this important holiday.
1. Make Some Hats!
One of the primary ways that Pueblans celebrate Cinco de Mayo in Mexico is by acting out the battle between the French and General Ignacio Zaragoza’s forces. In Philadelphia’s Cinco de Mayo parade, towering hats meant to satirize the French army’s uniforms adorn festival-goers alongside fake beards and prop rifles.
Have your students look at photos of festivals and reenactments around the United States and in Puebla, and then challenge them to make their own hats.
Estimated Time: 30–45 minutes
Materials Needed: Computer with projector, construction paper, scissors, tape, glue, feathers, ribbons, and anything else that’s fun to craft with!
- Show your students images of the reenactments in Puebla and the parades in Philadelphia.
- Ask students to describe the outfits of the parade members. What do they notice? Make sure they take note of what the hats look like (e.g., the gold ribbon on the hats, or the feathers).
- Provide materials for students to make their own hats!
2. Explore Mexico With Google Earth
Most American students have never been to Puebla. However, with the use of Google Earth, your students can see all the historical sites relevant to Cinco de Mayo right from their desks.
Estimated Time: 10–15 minutes
Materials Needed: Computer with projector
- Go to www.google.com/earth.
- Enter these latitude and longitude coordinates into the search field and press Enter: 19.0414° N, 98.2063° W.
- Ask students to describe and analyze what they see. What physical features do they notice? What cultural features stand out? Zoom in, zoom out, and explore a little! Where is this place? (Answer: Puebla, Mexico.) Take them on a tour of the relevant historical sites, such as the stone walls that the French were unable to bring down with their shelling.
- Select more coordinates and repeat! Below, we’ve provided some coordinates that are important to the history of this holiday.
|19.0414° N, 98.2063° W||Puebla, Mexico|
|19.1737° N, 96.1342° W||Veracruz, Mexico|
|19.4326° N, 99.1332° W||Mexico City, Mexico|
3. Make Some Mole or Other Traditional Mexican Food!
One of the most famous cultural foods of Puebla is mole poblano, a delicious chile and chocolate sauce that can be put on other foods like enchiladas, or even used as a sauce for a kind of meat stew. For Cinco de Mayo, you and your class can make mole together.
This is usually a spicy dish, but we know that might be difficult to serve in some classrooms (and with some palates). To make a milder dish, replace pasilla, mulato, and any other chilis—which add spiciness—with anchos, which are generally very mild and add texture and flavor to the dish.
If making mole is a little too involved for your class, you can try some other traditional dishes common in Puebla. Consider making chalupas, chiles in nogada, tlacoyos, or tamales. There are plenty of recipes online (some more complicated than others). Find one that works for you and your class, and get cooking!
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