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Honoring Hispanic Heritage on Cinco de Mayo

Meghan Mathis

Honoring Hispanic Heritage on Cinco de MayoPiñatas, a cactus with a black mustache, a jalapeno wearing a sombrero and a poncho, and a chihuahua wearing red, white, and green t-shirts. 

This list is just a sampling of the images I discovered when I did an Internet search for “Cinco de Mayo.” All these graphics left me wondering – what do Americans really know about Cinco de Mayo?  More importantly, how can I make sure my students have a more informed idea of what this holiday is really all about and why it is worth celebrating? 

With that in mind, here are a few ideas for teaching your students that Cinco de Mayo is about more than taco day in the school cafeteria.


Truth or Lies

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Cinco de Mayo is the day Mexicans celebrate their independence – kind of like our Fourth of July celebrations, right?  Nope. 

It’s far more popular in Mexico than in the U.S., right?  Wrong again. 

Well, it’s definitely only a Mexican and American holiday, I know that.  Nope, that’s wrong too! 

It turns out that most of what people think they know about this holiday is actually false – so have some fun helping your students separate the fact from the fiction.  Give them index cards with TRUE and FALSE written on them, and let them guess which “facts” about this holiday are actually real and which are fake. 

Just so you know, Cinco de Mayo celebrates the battle between a small group of Mexican militiamen, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, who fended off a much larger group of French soldiers during the Battle of Puebla.  Mexico had already won its independence from Spain over 50 years earlier!  Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in Mexico – especially in Puebla! - but it’s more popular in the United States, especially since it has been so commercialized by businesses hoping to capitalize on it.  Finally, while it is most prominently celebrated in the United States and Mexico, Cinco de Mayo celebrations also take place in Canada, Australia, the Caribbean, and even in Malta.

Show your class a short video that discusses the history of the day.  The History Channel website has fantastic short video on a variety of Cinco de Mayo related topics (see link below) or read a brief description of the background of Cinco de Mayo.  Challenge your students to educate their friends and family about what Cinco de Mayo is really all about!

Meet Some Famous Latinos

While many individuals will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo with tacos and nachos – we have an opportunity to take a moment to introduce our classes to some of the talented and important individuals who share a Hispanic heritage.  Ask your students to choose from a list of names and then let them spend the day in the computer lab researching the amazing achievements these talented individuals have made to our world. 

Scholastic’s website has school-friendly blurbs about several of these individuals, including Rebecca Lobo, a player in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), Pam Munoz Ryan, whose novel Esperanza Rising, is very popular with young readers, and Ellen Ochoa, an astronaut who has spent over 700 hours in outer space!  

Take a Virtual Field Trip

By utilizing technology in our classrooms, teachers have an ever-increasing array of ways to bring the world to our students.  Why not travel to Mexico with your students (virtually, of course)?  National Geographic’s website has thousands of beautiful photo collections of Mexico, including photographs of Mayan and Aztec ruins and of the yearly migration of millions of monarch butterflies from the northern U.S. and Canada to just outside Mexico City. 

Create a writing assignment that allows your students to explore these photographs on their own and then write about the places they’d most like to visit in Mexico and why they chose those locations.  If you have the time, turn this writing lesson into a math lesson as well by having your class calculate how far they are from their chosen spots in Mexico, how long it would take to get there, and how much it might cost to take a trip there.

More than Tacos and Nachos

Most Cinco de Mayo celebrations center on honoring the music and food of Mexico – so there’s nothing wrong with making your classroom Cinco de Mayo lessons a true fiesta.  But why not make it more meaningful by introducing your class to some of the foods and music that might be less familiar to them? If you have the space, time, and courage, why not have your classes use banana leaves or corn husks to make their own tamales?  Fill the tamales with either sweet or savory fillings - your students will never forget this introduction into another culture’s cuisine. 

If taking on a large cooking project is not possible, or just too daunting to contemplate, consider bringing in some of the traditional ingredients of Mexican cooking – this, too, will be a new experience for many of your students.  Cilantro, tomatillos, avocados, peppers and chiles (there are many that are mild enough for most students to try), can all be brought in easily and tasted with very little preparation needed.

Bring in a Speaker

If possible, reach out to members of your community to see if anyone would be willing to come in and speak to your class about what their Hispanic heritage means to them.  While this might be very easy if you live in an area with a large population of individuals with Hispanic background, it could be even more worthwhile to do this if you live in a community with a less prominent Hispanic community.  Young learners love meeting new people and being able to ask them questions about their lives.  What could be a better way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo than to give your students the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and learn about another culture? 

Challenge Your Older Students

While your younger students are learning about the food and music of our neighbor to the south, don’t forget to challenge your older students to think about the holiday a bit more deeply.  History and geography teachers can take the opportunity to bring in non-fiction accounts of travelling in Mexico for a mini-lesson on the growing number of travel blogs and memoirs being published today.  If your class is more mature, it could be an interesting opportunity to discuss some of the political conversations taking place about Mexican-U.S. issues today. 

Cinco de Mayo is often marked by political commentary regarding immigration, assimilation, and other similar topics – so why not use the opportunity to show your students what political opinion looks like, how to debate topics respectfully, and how to research both sides of an issue in order to become a more informed global citizen?


The United States is a multicultural nation with a large and growing Hispanic population.  Celebrating Cinco de Mayo in your classroom is a wonderful way to show your students that they are part of a global community and that, by respecting and learning about cultures that are different from theirs (or celebrating their own cultures while teaching others about what makes their heritage unique), they are becoming responsible citizens in that community.

Now, you tell us: how do you plan to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in your classroom? Share your plans in the comments section, below!


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