Deciphering Cinco de Mayo

Grab your sombrero -- it's Cinco de Mayo, a day more closely associated with drink specials in America than its historic significance in Mexico.

Mexican-born Rodrigo Cervantes, editor of Mundo Hispanico, (a Cox Communications-owned weekly newspaper in Atlanta), has a good laugh on the fifth of May when he sees how many non-Latinos celebrate the holiday. Picture sombreros with fuzzy tassels hanging from the brim, fake Salvador Dali mustaches and pitchers of margaritas -- all things rarely seen in his native country, he says.

And Alex Arana, manager of Mexican restaurant Lime Taqueria in Smyrna, can't begin to count the number of people who, in the days leading up to Cinco de Mayo, have asked him about Mexico's Independence Day. He hesitates to break the news to them: May 5 has nothing to do with that.

Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates a 19th century battle in the village of Puebla, isn't widely observed in Mexico. But that hasn't stopped it from becoming the biggest celebration of Latino culture in America, a sort of "St. Patrick's Day" with a Mexican twist, the men say.

"Honestly, it's an excuse to get out and celebrate," Arana says. "And for Mexican restaurants, it's our biggest day of the year, definitely."

People around the world may ring in the holiday without knowing its meaning, Cervantes suggests, so we decided to dig a little deeper into the soul of Cinco de Mayo.

What it's about: A celebration of the Battle of Puebla, which took place on May 5, 1862, when a small Mexican army defeated invading French troops during the French-Mexican War.

What it is not: A popular event in Mexico. While Cinco de Mayo is still observed in Puebla, Mexico's biggest national celebration is its Independence Day on Sept. 16.

What it is today: A way to celebrate collective Latino-American heritage with parades, celebrations, music events and lots of food and drink.

Where to celebrate: At your favorite Mexican bar or restaurant, many of which are hosting mega-parties. Virginia-Highland will host its annual Cinco de Mayo block party between restaurants Pozole and Limerick Junction on Highland Avenue.

Drink of choice: Instead of a margarita, consider a paloma -- a blend of tequila, lime juice and grapefruit soda.

Food: Ditch the hard taco and opt for traditional dishes such as tostadas and pozole, a Mexican stew.