Oldspeak: “A day originally meant to be a somber, liquor-free day of reflection commemorating of The Battle of Puebla where an outnumbered Mexican army and militia defeated a vastly superior invading French army in Puebla, Mexico, has been twisted and contorted repackaged as the drunken hedonistic consumption-fueled spectacle we see today. Only in America…. SO ‘as you raise your glass in a toast this May 5, don’t forget that the celebration has origins that extend far beyond mariachi music and margaritas’– Allison Ford
By Sue Vorenberg @ The Columbian:
Rumors abound in Vancouver and across the United States regarding the mysterious origins of the Cinco de Mayo holiday.
Ask a bunch of random strangers about it, and you’ll probably get an equally random number of theories about what’s being celebrated — even at an educational institution like Clark College, where The Columbian went on the hunt for the real story.
Asked what he knew about it, Jonathan Weiker, a GED student at the college, said his former father-in-law had the inside scoop.
“He used to celebrate it, and he called it Mexican New Year,” Weiker said.
Nearby, another young man who didn’t want to give his name was quick to correct Weiker.
“It’s their Day of the Dead,” he said.
John Yoder, walking down one of the college hallways with his friend Samantha Neal, smiled slightly when asked what he knew about the holiday.
“I’ve heard everybody say it’s Mexican independence day, but I know it’s not,” Yoder said, adding that he wasn’t sure what the real story was.
Neal smirked back at him.
“I know it’s the day the Mexican army beat the French,” she said. “I don’t know why they celebrate it. I mean, hey, who didn’t beat the French?”
Of the four, Neal is the clear winner — perhaps because her 90-year-old great-grandmother comes from Puebla, the state in southern Mexico where the event actually happened.
“I can’t believe I’m the only one that knew that,” Neal said. “I’m going to start bragging now.”
At that, Neal got a high-five from her friend Yoder.
Erika Nava, a Spanish professor at Clark College, filled in the rest of the historical details.
The event on which Cinco de Mayo is based is called La Batalla de Puebla. It was a U.S. Civil War-era battle in 1862 in which the French army, led by Napoleon III, invaded Puebla and was subsequently turned back by a much smaller force made up of the Mexican army and local militia.
But while Mexico won the battle, it ultimately lost the war. The French invaded again in 1863 and installed a dictator who ruled the country for a handful of years before he was eventually overthrown, Nava said.
“It’s similar to Gettysburg, that’s what it means to people in Puebla,” Nava said. “It’s also a somber, no-liquor-sold holiday where they reenact the battle.”
Unfortunately, it’s by no means rare for people in the United States to have been told the wrong story about the holiday, she added.
Nava said she’s even seen other Spanish teachers spread misinformation about it.
“I look on the Web and see teachers saying it’s Mexican independence day,” Nava said. “It’s sort of sad.”
People from southern Mexico often cringe when they see how the holiday is celebrated in the United States — often at bars with alcohol and loud banter.
Nava’s husband, Hugo Nava, who’s a schoolteacher in Portland, grew up in Puebla and said he was somewhat mystified as to why people in the United States celebrate the holiday at all.
“The way I see people from the U.S. celebrate it, it’s just an excuse to go drink, like St. Patrick’s Day,” Hugo Nava said. “For us it’s a patriotic day. It’s important because it’s part of the history of Mexico. We have a parade. It’s a dry day. Nobody drinks.”
The U.S. celebration of the day probably came about because people in the Southwestern United States, which was part of Mexico until 1848, held onto the holiday as part of their kinship with their former country. It eventually turned into a celebration of Hispanic heritage in that region, Erika Nava said.
“It’s been sort of adopted as a Latino holiday, and I don’t think it’s bad to have a holiday that celebrates Latino pride, but I think it’s bad when that holiday is based on misinformation,” Nava added.
From the Southwest, the holiday apparently spread across the United States, more as an excuse to party than as anything associated with the actual Mexican historical event, she said.
“I guess most people also don’t know where St. Patrick’s Day came from,” Erika Nava said.
There’s also probably no way to change the way the holiday is celebrated in the United States, she said.
Erika Nava said she thinks that’s OK, but that people should acknowledge it as a separate thing from the Mexican historical event.
“Let’s just call it a holiday that has nothing to do with the holiday in Mexico, it just falls on the same day,” she said.
Hugo Nava said he can accept that, although he still thinks people should understand a bit about Cinco de Mayo’s origins before they go out and party.
“It’s OK if you know the history behind it,” he said. “To me, if you just go, get crazy and party — it doesn’t make sense. You can do that any day of the year. Knowing about it, there’s just a little bit of respect of history.”
After learning about the real origins of the event, the Clark College crowd said they were eager to spread the word to their friends ahead of the May 5 holiday.
“I never knew the history,” said Moses Stickney, a Washington State University Vancouver student who previously attended Clark College. “Now that I know, sure, I’ll tell my friends.”
Weiker said he was glad to learn the truth as well.
“Everybody has their great wars,” Weiker said. “They deserve to celebrate it in their own way.”
Neal said she planned to celebrate Cinco de Mayo this year the way she usually does — at her great-grandmother’s Vancouver home, spending time with family, eating Mexican dishes and not drinking.
“Now that I know people don’t know the history, I’m going to start telling them about it,” Neal said.
Beyond Cerveza: The Real History of Cinco de Mayo
By Allison Ford @ Divine Caroline:
As Americans, we celebrate plenty of holidays that we don’t fully understand or appreciate. Here’s a pop quiz: What does St. Patrick’s Day actually commemorate? What is the real significance of Mardi Gras? Both festivals have legitimate origins, but nowadays they seem to be just two more excuses to dress up in funny hats and drink copious amounts of alcohol. Many people also love to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but how many of us know what the holiday really stands for?
Most Americans assume that Cinco de Mayo honors the day of Mexican independence, but that’s not correct. Far from being the Mexican version of our Fourth of July, it’s actually more like the Mexican version of Columbus Day, a holiday acknowledged by a few people but completely ignored by the majority. It commemorates the Battle of Puebla, which took place on May 5, 1862, when Mexican forces, despite being badly outnumbered, defeated the invading French army. The battle would not even be considered historically significant except for the fact that the Mexicans’ underdog win became a great source of national pride, and because it marks the last time any foreign army invaded North American soil.
In Mexico, it’s considered a regional celebration, observed in the state of Puebla but not many other places. It’s not even an official federal holiday. But Americans have embraced Cinco de Mayo and everything that accompanies it—mostly the music, the food, and, of course, the cerveza.
Drink-o de Mayo
The holiday started to gain steam in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. As an increasing number of Hispanic immigrants found their culture underrepresented in schools and in public life, people looked for ways to acknowledge and celebrate Hispanic heritage, and companies looked for ways to increase sales and promote their products. What started out as smallish gatherings in cities with large Hispanic populations turned into a new national holiday, celebrated with far more vigor in the United States than anywhere in Mexico. Some have suggested that Cinco de Mayo, rather than the real Mexican Independence Day (September 16), was presented as the more palatable of the two holidays to white Americans because it didn’t have the anti-imperialist sentiment that many Independence Day celebrations did.
Just as “everyone’s Irish on St. Patty’s Day,” beer companies encourage everyone to embrace Mexican heritage on this day, which results in consumers of all races and nationalities buying Mexican beer, liquor, and food. As the Hispanic population continues to grow, and more and more people develop a taste for Mexican food and beverages, the holiday becomes more mainstream. Corona Extra is now the number-one imported beer in the United States, and May 5 has become a recognized party holiday, just like St. Patrick’s Day or Mardi Gras, often with a buildup of a month or longer. Other companies have gotten in on the Cinco action, too, including Frito-Lay companies, with their salsa and guacamole products, and even American brewers looking to steal some of the market away from Corona, Tecate, and Dos Equis.
Growing Population, Growing Dilemma
People of Hispanic descent don’t always appreciate the blatant co-opting of their culture for the sake of partying and profits. Just as many Americans are offended by the commercialization of Christmas, some Mexicans feel that it’s disrespectful to use their nation’s history as a cheap excuse to hit up happy hour. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, a growing number want to take back the holiday, returning it to a celebration that focuses on family and culture, instead of on tequila and taquitos. As the holiday’s profile broadens, communities are becoming just as likely to see family-friendly festivals that include traditional music, food, storytelling, and dancing as they are to see out-of-control bar crowds.
Another growing concern is how the holiday’s marketers disproportionally target young Hispanics. The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth found that young Latinos and Latinas are exposed to more alcohol advertising than their adult counterparts. Major brewers like Anheuser-Busch and Coors even have entire divisions specializing in marketing to Hispanics. The result is that Hispanic adolescents are more likely to drink and get drunk than their peers of other racial groups, and they’re more likely to start drinking at an early age. The companies encourage young Hispanics to see the celebration of Cinco de Mayo (and its many inebriated revelers) as a matter of ethnic pride, and because Hispanics are the fastest-growing group of immigrants, it’s easy to imagine that this targeted marketing is a strategy to develop customers for life.
St. Patrick’s Day is the feast day for the patron saint of Ireland. Mardi Gras is a celebration that leads up to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the forty days of Lent. Cinco de Mayo may not be the holiday people thought it was, but it still honors an event of which Mexicans are rightly proud. Every holiday can be turned into an excuse to overindulge, but as you raise your glass in a toast this May 5, don’t forget that the celebration has origins that extend far beyond mariachi music and margaritas.