Norine Kotts, one of the managers of El Rayo Taqueria in Portland, celebrated her first Cinco de Mayo at the restaurant in 2010.

The experience left her “stunned.”

“We didn’t have a lot of staff on yet, because it’s May,” she recalled. “People aren’t on vacation yet. You don’t know what the weather is going to be like. And a group of people walked in the door at, like, (one minute) past 11 and said, ‘Happy Cinco de Mayo,’ and ordered a round of margaritas. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be like St. Patrick’s Day. We’re going to be buried all day.’

“And, in fact, we were. I kept calling RSVP all day and saying, ‘Can you bring me more tequila?’ We learned our lesson.”

This year? El Rayo is stepping it up a notch by bringing in a mechanical bull for the day.

If it seems as if Cinco de Mayo has been growing in popularity in Portland, hold onto your sombreros. This year, the Mexican holiday falls on a Saturday – and on the same day as the Kentucky Derby, offering local restaurants and bars a winning trifecta when it comes to attracting margarita- and mint julep-loving revelers.

Some spots are combining the two celebrations. Sonny’s in Portland, for example, is offering deals on mint juleps and Kentucky mules, and will be showing the Derby race on its big-screen TV. But the restaurant will also have specials on Mexican beer, and will be churning out hot pepper and chile pineapple margaritas.

If that isn’t enough to make your head spin like a pinata, over at Bull Feeney’s – a traditional Irish pub – they’re really mixing it up, serving $3 bourbon margaritas and $3 tequila mint juleps along with other specials. They’re also broadcasting the Derby at 6 p.m.

Mexican restaurants that are typically slammed on Cinco de Mayo are trying to raise the bar a little, even though they know they won’t lack for customers.

Zapoteca in Portland is using the occasion to open up its patio for the first time, and will be offering a special four-course Cinco de Mayo menu on Saturday night.

In addition to bringing in a mechanical bull (don’t worry – if you fall, you’ll land on a pillow of air), El Rayo is hosting a family-friendly afternoon that will include face painting and balloons for the kids. Primo Cubano will be providing live music from noon until 2:30 p.m.

“If anybody comes in wearing a cowboy hat, or a sombrero, or an El Rayo trucker hat, or a Derby hat, they’ll get a $5 El Rayo gift card,” Kotts said.

Kotts is under no illusions that her customers understand exactly what day they’re toasting with their discounted margarita. “I think in the United States, Cinco de Mayo is just another day to have a party,” she said. “It’s not like the Fourth of July.”

Most people wrongly assume that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day. But that day is actually Sept. 16, and celebrations begin on Sept. 15. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican Army’s victory over the French Army at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

“In Mexico, believe it or not, they do not celebrate it much,” said Sergio Ramos, managing partner of Zapoteca, who is from Mexico. “They call it ‘the Mexican Independence Day in the United States,’ is what they call it.”

Ioana Navarrette-Pellicer of the Consulate General of Mexico in Boston says Cinco de Mayo is a national holiday in Mexico that is “more of a remembrance day than a holiday.”

In Mexico, she said, Cinco de Mayo is marked with military parades, flag raisings and patriotic anthems. It’s more like Veterans Day in the United States than July 4 celebrations that are filled with food and fun. But the holiday is important to Mexicans, she said – especially this year, when the country is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla.

“It symbolizes, in a way, a special determination by the Mexican Army to go against one of the largest armies in the world back then,” Navarrette-Pellicer said. “That’s the real importance to Mexicans. It reflects that we do have the courage and the determination to triumph against such a huge imperial Army.”

Cinco de Mayo got a foothold in the United States when Hispanic immigrants began celebrating it here to express pride in their culture and their ethnic roots, no matter their national origin. Today, there is even an annual Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House.

“It has become more of a way of symbolizing the pride of being a Hispanic or a Latin American, however they want to present themselves, in a foreign country,” Navarrette-Pellicer said. “And it has acquired a distinctive place in the United States as an event that brings together diverse national origins but from the Hispanic community.

“It’s interesting, no? Fifty million Latinos have rewritten the meaning and importance of Cinco de Mayo.”

That sounds like something worth raising a margarita glass for, doesn’t it?

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: mgoad@pressherald.com

Twitter: MeredithGoad