As we start to head into spring, Cinco de Mayo is just around the corner. If you’re looking for a fun way to let off a little bit of steam or just looking to expand your knowledge on world holidays, the fifth of May is an important date in Mexican culture.
There are no official decorating rules for Cinco de Mayo. However, since the colors of the Mexican flag are green, white, and red, these same colors often serve as decorating mainstays for any Cinco de Mayo party. They also carry a rich historical symbolism for the United Mexican States.
What Is Cinco de Mayo?
First things first: Cinco de Mayo is not the Mexican Independence Day. Mexico’s Independence Day is actually September 16th and marks the anniversary of the “Cry of Dolores” – the ringing of bells from a church in 1810 that signaled the call to arms for Mexican independence from Spanish rule.
Instead, Cinco de Mayo commemorates a specific battle that occurred more than fifty years later. During the Second French Intervention in Mexico, the Mexican army was vastly outnumbered by the French forces. Despite the overwhelming odds, the Mexican forces were able to overcome the better outfitted French army, slowing their march towards Mexico City.
While the date of this battle is observed in some parts of Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is an overwhelmingly American holiday. In 1863, Mexican settlers and miners in what was then Columbia, California celebrated the victory, and the holiday has been a mainstay of Mexican-American culture since.
By the 1950s and 60s, Cinco de Mayo as an unofficial holiday had started to gain prominence outside of Southern California. In the 1980s, advertisers began marketing special deals or promotions that centered around the holiday. By 2013, more beer was sold on Cinco de Mayo than on St. Patrick’s Day or Super Bowl Sunday.
Basically, Cinco de Mayo is to Mexican-American culture what St. Patrick’s Day is to Irish-American culture – a day that, while still holding great historical significance in its home country, is widely celebrated abroad as a celebration of the unique culture and heritage of a specific group.
Some may use Cinco de Mayo as a fun excuse to relax with friends and family and enjoy a few drinks. For many others, however, it is a celebration of the Mexican-American history, culture, and shared experience that stretches across the country.
Where Do the Colors Come From?
The unofficial colors of Cinco de Mayo – green, white, and red – come from the Mexican flag. While the design may have changed slightly over the years, the overall appearance of the Mexican flag has remained mostly unchanged since it was first flown in 1821.
During the Mexican War for Independence, the civilian forces that rallied to fight against Spain flew a wide variety of flags, with images ranging from the Virgin of Guadalupe to the familiar eagle clutching a snake – with the main difference on that flag being the cannons and cannonballs that framed the icon.
Following the unification of the Mexican army, the Army of the Three Guarantees began flying a flag that looked very similar to the modern Mexican flag. More specifically, it bore the same three colored stripes. However, these stripes were diagonal, featured a gold star on each stripe, and held no coat of arms on the white stripe. This flag flew for less than a year before it was discontinued in favor of the first iteration of the flag we know today.
By 1823, the eagle and snake emblem had been added to the center of the flag. The ratio of the stripes and the specifics of the center crest changed slightly over the years, but by 1865, most of the changes had been locked in. The “eagle of Anahuac”, along with the snake it rips into with its talons, gave the flag a distinctly heraldic feel. It also helped set the Mexican flag apart from the similarly colored and patterned Italian flag.
By 1968, the Mexican government had fully standardized the stripe ratio and size of the crest. The three main colors of the flag, symbols of Mexican culture since 1821, remain unchanged.
What Do the Colors Mean?
As a general rule, the same colors tend to reappear in flags around the world. Realistically, there are a limited amount of options available for use, so it isn’t exactly surprising that some of the same themes often show up repeatedly as well. However, the Mexican flag is unique in that while it uses some of the same colors as older European flags, it ascribes a totally different meaning to those colors.
The meaning of the colors may have changed over time, but they have mostly been accepted to symbolize the same concepts since 1968. At this point in time, the current Mexican flag was ratified, and the meanings of its colors were solidified in the mind of the public. Prior to 1968, the 1864 ratification of the then-official Mexican flag ascribed a different meaning to the various colors, but at least two of those meanings have since been altered.
The meaning and importance of the red stripe on the Mexican flag has undergone perhaps the most dramatic shift over time. At the time of its independence, Mexico was a deeply religious nation. Some of the earliest freedom fighters marched into battle under the standard of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In 1864, Emperor Maximilian I declared that the red stripe represented religion.
This is actually in line with the symbolism of the color red that was popular at the time. The French flag, which had similarly flown at the end of a long civil conflict followed by the reinvention of a modern society, used the colors red and blue due to their association with the Virgin Mary, although these colors were later redefined to align with a more secular or nondenominational perspective.
Similarly, in the 20th century, the importance of the red stripe was changed to be more inclusive and accessible to Mexican patriots of any religion. Instead of tying the nation to Catholicism – and the Old World roots of that particular religion – the red stripe on the Mexican flag now symbolizes blood.
To most modern viewers, this is not a surprising reinterpretation, as the color red has traditionally been associated with bloodshed and violence. On the Mexican flag, however, the color red specifically symbolizes the blood of the heroes who have given their lives throughout Mexico’s history. From the Mexican War of Independence to the very Battle of Puebla that Cinco de Mayo commemorates, Mexican history is filled with the noble sacrifices of brave men and women who gave their lives for their country.
The color green on the Mexican flag symbolizes hope. More specifically, it symbolizes a hope for independence and a determination to achieve that hope. Because the three colors on the flag started appearing together during Mexico’s war for independence from Spanish rule, it only makes sense that that driving hope is the “first” color seen on the flag when read from left to right.
This is very similar to the meaning of the color green on the Italian flag, but the main distinction is that the color of hope on the Mexican flag specifically refers to hope as associated with freedom. The idea that this drive for independence should be among the most important virtues in Mexican culture dates back to its earliest appearances on the flag. In the flag of the Army of the Three Guarantees, the green stripe was the center stripe and therefore took up the most space on the field.
While the other colors have shifted in meaning throughout the secularization of Mexico, the green stripe on the flag has remained the most constant over the longest period of time.
Finally, the white stripe on the Mexican flag has undergone a similar shift, along with the red stripe, as Mexico has moved from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. In this case, however, it is not so much an example of secularization as it is a sign of Mexico’s growing independence following its freedom from Spain.
As of the 1864 ratification of the flag’s design, the white stripe represented purity. This is probably the most common virtue associated with the color white, and it also links very heavily to Mexico’s self-portrayal as a religious, morally distinguished nation, especially compared to the old, weary nations of Europe.
As time went on, however, the meaning of the color began to change. In 1968, following the approval of the current flag design, the white stripe had shifted in meaning. Today, it is widely believed that the white color on the Mexican flag represents unity.
As mentioned above, this can be taken as a sign of Mexico’s growing identity and strength in multiple ways. First, Mexico’s strength has always been its unity, but it was only after it had successfully distanced itself from its colonial roots that Mexico was able to extend that unity back across the ocean. Today, the white stripe has been referred to as a “band of unity” between Mexico and its economic and cultural allies on the global scale.
From a historical perspective, Mexico’s unity was one of the driving factors that enabled the young nation to successfully repel Spanish forces. Unlike the rigid class and race-based structures that determined political action in Europe, the Mexican civilian forces that took up arms against the Spanish were comprised of individuals from multiple walks of life – from indigenous peoples to Mexicans of Spanish descent.
This mass mobilization and singular unity gave the Mexican fighters a tremendous advantage when fighting the technologically superior Spanish forces. They were outnumbered and extremely disadvantaged, yet they were able to throw off the rule of one of the largest global powers at the time.
While the initial purity symbolism of the Mexican flag’s white stripe may be more in line with European ideals and commonly accepted meanings, its current status as a symbol of Mexican unity is one that ties into the nation’s heritage as well as its goals for the future.
Color Meanings Can Change Over Time
Ultimately, it must be allowed that the meanings of the colors on the Mexican flag have changed over the years and may do so again in the future. However, some basic principles have stayed the same. Primarily, the endlessly determined sense of hope and striving for greater freedom and opportunity that so distinguished the Mexican nation at its birth and continues to drive its people to this day.
When it comes to Cinco de Mayo, the flag’s three colors serve as a celebration of Mexico’s history – and the unique heritage of Mexican-American citizens today. That same hope for a better future, striving for unity across cultural differences, and honor and memory of those who have gone before still serve as hallmarks of the Mexican-American identity.
Whether you’ve been celebrating Cinco de Mayo for years or are just starting to explore the holiday in more depth, an understanding of Mexico’s history and position on the global stage can help you gain a new appreciation of the culture. The meanings of the flag’s colors may have changed slightly over time, but the spirit behind them is still alive and thriving all over the world today.
As with any nation, the colors of Mexico’s flag carry a rich symbolic meaning and a sense of history that stretches back to before the birth of the current nation. If you’re looking for a simple way to bring some of that heritage to any sort of celebration, the colors of the Mexican flag are a great way to do so.
Cinco de Mayo may not be a purely Mexican holiday, but it’s still a day that deserves to be decked out in green, white, and red in honor of the unique history and vibrant cultural personality that it represents.