“Ay, yay, yay-yay, canta y no llores….” rings the Cielito Lindo tune while we swiftly sip on a margarita. Cinco de Mayo comes around each year and it’s time to celebrate. We salud each other to Mexico’s Independence, to their culture’s food and drink, and to have a great time with the excuse to tip that second (read: fourth) tequila shot. We, the people up here in the USA, realize that Mexico is raging with bigger festivals and louder venues, but that doesn’t deter us from pushing out as many party muscles as possible – especially in the southwest states close to the border. But do we really know why we celebrate?
I threw out the question, “What does Cinco de Mayo celebrate?” at many San Diegans over the past month. Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, etc. – the ethnicity or age didn’t influence the answers. In order of frequency, the following replies decisively took the majority:
“Mexican Independence Day.” “I don’t know.” “Spanish Independence Day.”
And some notable answers:
“Kicking Mexican Ass.” “I don’t know. But if someone is doing something that day then I join in.”
Then I ventured out to my friends via Facebook:
“A world wide opportunity for us stiff folk who can't dance worth a damn to drink sufficient tequila to let us think we're as cool, hip and culturally alive as the Latinos....” – via a friend living in Uruguay
“It originated as part of an economic stimulus package for Southern California sometime back in the early 80s. It's success was so widespread, that Americans everywhere demanded that this wonderful holiday occur more that just once a year, thus, the weekly holiday of Taco Tuesday was born....” - via a friend in Orange County
“Fifth of May - something about kicking French peoples’ asses!?! – via a friend from Denmark
Out of the 50 people verbally asked here in town, a young bus boy at Islands Restaurants and a second-grade primary school teacher replied correctly: this day commemorates the Mexican battle victory against the larger, invading French troops in the city of Puebla, Mexico on May 5, 1862. But is that really it? And more importantly, why does America celebrate this day?
Let’s first go to the history in cliffs-note form. In the year of 1862, the French, British, and Spanish arrived to Mexico to collect past due debt. The British and Spanish came only for the dough, but the French (sent over by the little man Napoleon III) came to conquer Mexico and to place an emperor in Mexico City. The Spanish and British realized this, got in and out quickly, while the French held fighting plans. The US could not offer assistance to Mexico because we were figuring out if our future would be with or without slaves on American soil.
The estimated 8,000-plus French Army marched from Vera Cruz towards Mexico City to take the capital. But in the way, near the town of Puebla at two Mexican forts, awaited a much smaller Mexican militia estimated at around 4,000 men. The French were taken by surprise and tasted a sour defeat - something they hadn’t been dealt in 50 years. With this victory rose Mexico’s pride as a nation, and they continued fighting the French for two more years until France ultimately won and placed an emperor in the city. This day commemorates winning a battle, not a war. So again the question, why the fiesta over here Stateside?
The world sat on the sidelines of our civil war with some hoping that the Confederacy would successfully succeed – effectively cutting up the United States’ power. We declared that it would mean war if the French, or anyone, diplomatically recognized the Confederacy. However, the French continued to supply the Confederates.
Now consider Mexico, the Battle of Puebla, and the French invasion. In their timely efforts to defend their own country, Mexico prevented the French from supporting the Confederacy for an entire year. And what happened 14 months after the Battle of Puebla? You got it – the Union Army declared victory and the States went on into its unified future.
So yes, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in big part for commercial interests of pushing of margaritas…and according to my friend in the OC it is the reason we are blessed with Taco Tuesdays. And no, it’s not Mexico’s Independence Day. But maybe, just maybe, it was a day in which the Union Army, and the entire USA, received some indirect help to win the Civil War. This holiday can be about celebrating the history of Mexico and USA together and recognizing that we are in it for the long haul – as a team. We have been neighbors for many years; have fought against each other, with each other, and for each other within the last 200 years. The American-Mexican relationship is nothing short of vital for both nations. Let’s keep that in mind...for as long as the tequila poppers will allow us to anyways.