In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in a very low-key manner. Sure, schoolkids get the day off, but the only major parades and fiestas taking place south of the border are held in the city of Puebla, where there's a military parade and a mock battle is staged to commemorate the battle of Puebla which is the origin of this holiday
So why is Cinco de Mayo celebrated with such fanfare in the United States? It seems to be more a question of marketing than anything else. With the large population of Mexican descent living in the U.S. it makes sense to celebrate Mexican culture, just as Saint Patrick's Day is a day to celebrate Irish culture, and also, for many, an excuse to party hard.
History of Cinco de Mayo in the U.S.
Cinco de Mayo was first celebrated in the United States in Southern California in 1863 as a show of solidarity with Mexico against French rule. It continued to be celebrated, and by the 1930s it was seen as an opportunity to celebrate Mexican identity, promote ethnic consciousness and build community solidarity. In the 1950s and 60s Mexican-American youths appropriated the holiday and it gained a bi-national flavor, and its celebration was used as a way to build Mexican-American pride. Celebrations sometimes acquired corporate sponsors, and this is the way the holiday began to take on a commercial flavor.
In the 1980s the holiday began to be commercialized on a wide scale. Now Cinco de Mayo is promoted as the day to celebrate Mexican food, culture, traditions, and of course, booze. For some it may just be an excuse to get drunk, but if it's also an opportunity for people to learn more about Mexican culture and history, then it's not completely wasted.
Why not Independence Day? Perhaps it would make more sense to celebrate Mexican culture on Mexican Independence Day, September 16th, but can you imagine people getting fired up to celebrate "Dieciseis de Septiembre"? It's just not catchy. Also, in September most people are in "Back to School" mode and not in a partying mood. The month of May is lacking major holidays, and an excuse to party is very welcome during this month.
How to Celebrate Cinco De Mayo
Indulge in Mexican cuisine
For a more authentic experience, steer clear of Mexican fast food chains like Taco Bell and Pollo Loco. Go for an authentic Mexican meal, rather than Texas Mexican(Tex Mex) (Americanized Mexican food). For example, did you know that nachos are rarely eaten in Mexico? And that no one puts cheddar cheese in their tacos or tostadas? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Tamales -- Although tamales are enjoyed throughout Latin America, they are especially popular in Mexico.
Tequila -- The plant from which tequila is made, blue agave, is cultivated (mostly) in Mexico. There are a variety of drinks you can make with tequila, like a margarita, tequila sunrise, or Cinco de Mayo cocktail: 2 1/2 oz. tequila, 1 oz. grenadine, and 1 oz. lime juice combined with ice in a shaker, strained into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnished with a lime.
Decorate Mexican style
Make a piñata and use it as decoration or as a fun activity for the kids (and adults!) later on
Use the colors of the Mexican flag -- green, white and red -- on your clothing, accessories, or anywhere else that you may find it relevant
There's more to Mexican music than mariachi bands. There's Tejano (TexMex), banda (sounds like polka), Mexican cumbia, and all of these are fun to dance to. Get some CDs, look up some instructional dance videos online, invite the neighbors and have fun!