The Curious Tale of Cinco de Mayo

05/05/2014

My country Mexico has no shortage of meaningful patriotic holidays. There’s Constitution Day, Independence Day, Revolution Day, Benito Juárez’ Birthday…  But the only one that’s caught on beyond our borders is one that’s paid relatively little attention within: the relatively minor Cinco de Mayo, whose name is nothing more than the Spanish for “the fifth of May.”

OK, here’s some background. When in 1861 Mexico’s iconic president Benito Juárez declared a two-year moratorium on debt payment to European creditors, the relevant countries went to far as to send warships to collect. One, France under Napoleon III, decided to go one further by trying to set up a puppet empire in Mexico. So the French army landed and took Veracruz but then, amazingly, on May 5, 1862 was defeated by a Mexican force just half its size near my home town, Puebla, 110 kilometres (68 miles) from Mexico City.

The Battle of Puebla was naturally a huge boost for Mexican national unity and patriotism (even if it was only temporary, because the French won the next battle, and eventually came in and set up their empire, short-lived though it was). And in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is observed mostly here in Puebla, with a day off and a big parade of floats along downtown’s Fifth Avenue representing the famous battle, plus marchers from civic groups and civil servants like police, firemen, and soldiers. And of course locals take the opportunity to to come out for a glass or three of tequila, mezcal, and beer and perhaps a meal of local speciality mole poblano and other traditional dishes.

In the rest of the country, though, this occasion is just not that big a deal. Oh, you might come across a party in select nightspots in certain cities (especially where you find tourists and expats), but it’s much more of a thing in pubs and Mexican restaurants in parts of Europe and most especially the USA.

File:Batalla del 5 de mayo de 1862.jpg

And the reason for that is that  Mexicans in Southern California started celebrating the French whipping in 1863 (remember, that state belonged to Mexico until 1846), and given their influence and their continued devotion to the occasion as a celebration of Mexican pride, it became part of the United States’ multicultural culture (the dancers below are doing their thing in Washington DC!), inevitably got commercialised, and has since spread to other parts of the world (sometimes quite far-flung parts indeed; I hear that Cinco de Mayo at Cantina Agave in Beijing will really knock your sombrero off). Caramba, you could say in that sense it’s a little like the Mexican St. Patrick’s Day.

So sure, maybe beyond Puebla Mexicans don’t make much of a fuss over today. But as a Pueblan, I’m certainly proud to celebrate it, and as a Mexican, I find it gratifying that an occasion for Mexican pride, bravery, and overcoming overwhelming odds, has become a big, beloved deal in much of the world (even if the original reasons for it sometimes get lost amid all the margaritas). ¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

File:Cinco de Mayo dancers in Washington DC.jpg

images | iStock/Kelly Richardson Photography, www.inehrm.gob.mx, dbking