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The thought of celebrating Cinco de Mayo puts a smile on Hugo Garcia's face.

Born in the small village of El Rincon del Chino in Michoacon, Mexico, he is proud of his heritage and thankful, too, to be an American.

Yes, he will create some festivity around the May 5 holiday in his restaurant, but Cinco de Mayo is a little odd to him. It just wasn't something that his family or neighbors celebrated.

Margaritas and salsa will flow in bars and restaurants across this country to celebrate the Mexican Army's hard-fought win over the French military in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The real Independence Day — of Mexico's independence from Spain's rule, celebrate Sept. 16 — is the real party in Mexico. It starts a night earlier, and as midnight arrives, there's a lot of whooping and hollering, "Viva Mexico!" The parties can go on for days.

"Every little village, every town, every city, we all celebrate," said Hilda Garcia, Hugo's cousin and manager of his restaurant. "We have the bands, music, fireworks — like here — big dresses, big hats."

In the U.S., Hugo Garcia's family and Mexican friends celebrate only three holidays: Christmas, New Year's Day and Mother's Day. In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is a bit like Labor Day here — a day off of work and school but no bands, no parties, no fancy clothes. In the state of Puebla, where independence was fought, "they make it big," Hilda Garcia said.

In his kitchen at El Rancho Mexican Restaurant in Hanover, Hugo Garcia creates some of his homeland's rich foods, all made with fresh ingredients. These are some of the foods to be found at an independence party: pico de gallo made with fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro and spices; tamales with rice and beans; tostadas made with beans, lettuce, sour cream, cheese and tomatoes along with marinated pork or beef; and tacos.

Garcia learned to cook recipes that had come from his grandmother, who had taught his father and her other nine sons the ways of the kitchen to ease her burden. Watching his own parents work in the kitchen appealed to Garcia, and it became his life's work.

Immigrating to the United States at 15, Garcia remembers bits and pieces of a childhood in Mexico with nine brothers and two sisters. He remembers the Independence Day celebrations of retrieving branches from the forest and attaching small Mexican flags created by the local seamstress. "They weren't fancy, but they were unique," he said.

Vendors would arrive in town with mangoes and fried snacks. One vendor would quarter oranges, then sprinkle them with salt and hot pepper.

The village that he left at 15 to come to the United States isn't very attractive, Garcia said. "But you spend one day, two days, and you see the wonders of the place." It is a village where he ran barefoot until he was about 6; it's also where he lost his twin brother to bronchitis at the age of 10 months. From his brother's death came an angel he feels protects him, Garcia said, and no setback, no struggle is too great to overcome.

"I'm trying to change every day of my life when I'm here," he said. "I'm trying to move forward."

From poverty to the United States, Garcia teaches his own children the advantages they have here. "In this country, if you just want it, you can achieve what you want."

Independence and freedom. No matter the day, let's raise a margarita glass to those.

Also check out

Cinco de Mayo recipes: Salsa Verde, Guacamole, Salsa Roja, Pica de Gallo

Quiz: How much do you know about Cinco de Mayo?

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