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Ever since the celebration began to trickle eastward from California during the middle of the 20th century, Cinco de Mayo has been subject to several misconceptions in the United States. Many people mistakenly equate it with Mexico’s Independence Day, which actually takes place on September 16. Thanks largely to the marketing efforts of beer companies, many use it as an excuse to drink to excess while donning sombreros, the meaning behind the celebration of little consequence to revelers. But in reality, the holiday commemorates the Mexican army’s defeat of the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862, after which the heavily outnumbered Mexican forces’ victory over the well-equipped French invaders came to symbolize national unity and strength.
The holiday has evolved to more broadly celebrate Mexican heritage and culture, which LIFE featured in a 1968 photo essay by photographer John Dominis. Dominis was dispatched to Mexico ahead of the 1968 summer Olympics, which would bring many international travelers there. The photographs celebrated the country’s diverse ethnic makeup, its fiestas and its food, as well as its modernizing urban centers. They were, for many of LIFE’s readers, a first intimate glimpse into life south of the border, and one that presented the country’s richness of culture as worthy of admiration.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.