Fiesta in Guanajuato.
Caption from LIFE. Fiesta in Guanajuato.John Dominis—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Fiesta in Guanajuato.
Park dancers in Mexico City.
Plaza singers in Vera Cruz.
Indian of Morelia.
Performers in Mexico.
A wonders watcher.
A mariachi band, Mexico.
Incense bearer in Chiapas.
A young girl in Mexico.
Market, Mexico City.
Market children, San Miguel de Allende.
Lily seller, San Critóbal de las Casas.
Fruit stand, Mexico City.
Hammock seller, Oaxaca.
Man with balloons, Mexico.
Pinwheel display, Mexico City.
Hatful of onions, Vera Cruz.
Cambio de mayordomo.
Unloading fowl, Oaxaca.
Woman shelling corn in wicker hampers at a local market, Mexico.
Lunch on the Paseo de la Reforma.
Couple in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City.
Caption from LIFE. Fiesta in Guanajuato.
John Dominis—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Celebrate Cinco de Mayo With Vivid Images of Mexico in the 1960s

May 05, 2015

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.

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