In brief remarks, Pence brought greetings from President Donald Trump and praised Mexican-American and Hispanic-American communities as "one of the most vibrant threads in our national fabric," specifically addressing immigration.
"We are, as the saying goes, with a few exceptions, a nation of immigrants, and that's as true today as it was at the hour of America's birth," Pence told a room of invited guests, including members of the Hispanic community, Mexican Ambassador Gerónimo Gutierrez and Labor Secretary Alex Acosta.
Pence proceeded to tell the story of his grandfather, an Irish immigrant. He also took a quick mid-speech victory lap over the House passing the GOP-backed health care bill that would replace Obamacare.
Gutierrez subtly referenced US-Mexican tension with a message for the vice president and guests assembled.
"True friendship, they say, must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity to be worthy of its name," he said. "May this Cinco de Mayo remind us all, as Presidents Benito Juarez and Abraham Lincoln foresaw, that strong and successful Mexico is in the interest of the United States, as much as a strong and successful United State is in the interest of Mexico."
Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, which Pence referred to as "a day defined by courage and sacrifice in the defense of freedom."
George W. Bush's administration was the first to began hosting Cinco de Mayo festivities.
The atmosphere on Thursday evening was festive: attendees were jam-packed into the Indian Treaty Room, chatting before the vice president's arrival with some gathered around bar-height tables set with sunflowers and bright green tablecloths. Chicken tostadas, tuna empanadas, tostadas, and churros were on the menu, and guests sipped on bottles of Corona and glasses of white wine.
Trump's relationship with Mexico hasn't exactly gotten off to a friendly start.
"We're going to build a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it," was a hallmark rallying cry of the President's 2016 campaign, a promise the White House says will be fulfilled through new funding appropriated by Congress.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled his February trip to Washington after a series of Trump tweets about the border wall. Trump is also the first president since Carter to not make his first trip to Mexico or Canada.
Last year, the then-candidate raised eyebrows with his Cinco de Mayo tweet.
"Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!" he wrote.
President Barack Obama held a Cinco de Mayo reception seven of his eight years in office. The 2009, 2011, and 2014-2016 events were held in the White House East Room, and 2010 and 2012 were celebrated in the Rose Garden. There was no celebration in 2013 because he traveled to Mexico City that week.
"Nothing ruins a good fiesta like a long speech from a politician,"Obama joked in 2011, later adding, "You do not want to be between Michelle and a tamale."
Bush celebrated with music each year, including Rose Garden events in 2005, 2007 and 2008, and East Room events in 2002, 2004 and 2006. At a celebration on the South Lawn in 2001, Bush's nephew, George P. Bush, danced with Mexican singer Thalía.
Bob Scanlan, who served as White House florist for 13 years, was responsible for the floral arrangements for all of the May 5 celebrations during the Bush years, as well as Obama's first Cinco de Mayo. The event, he told CNN, was an opportunity for him to work with bright colors and for the White House chefs to serve traditional Mexican fare.
"It was a celebration and a reason for their staff and friends to have a party more than anything else, but it was certainly well-executed and thought out, it wasn't a drop-of-a-hat type event," he said of the Bush years, noting that planning began a few weeks ahead of time.
"It was all about just having an opportunity to reward the staff, an excuse to get together and celebrate and have a good group. It wasn't really political," he said.