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Cinco de Mayo: Significant Event
Or An Excuse To Party?

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General Bazaine attacks the fort of San Xavier during the second siege of Puebla, March 29, 1863.
Painting by Jean-Adolphe Beaucé.
Tequila Aside, The Fifth Of May Is Mainly A Celebration For Mexican Ex-Patriots, Much Like St. Patrick’s Day For Irish And Columbus Day For Italians

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By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine

May 4, 2016 — To many in the U.S., any mention of the Cinco de Mayo holiday elicits images of free flowing tequila, Mexican food specials and college-esque parties. But, the day is much more than an excuse to drink excessively and wear stereotypically Mexican garb (i.e. frat bros in sombreros), and actually holds special historical, cultural and nationalistic significance for Mexican and Mexican-American peoples.

What is that significance? Sometimes it can be hard to tell. While Cinco de Mayo is celebrated widely in the U.S., many Americans harbor misconceptions about the special meaning behind May 5, including believing that it represents something akin to Mexico’s Independence Day.

“While at certain point I saw this happening often, I believe it is less common now to hear people in the U.S. saying that Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican Independence Day,” said Marco Cabrera Geserick, visiting professor of Latin American history at Augustana College. “There is still, though, a lot of ignorance about what the date represents.”

Mexico actually celebrates independence from Spain on the night between September 15 and 16. That date correlates to the beginning of a revolt led by Father Miguel Hidalgo, which marks the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810.

“Victory over the Spaniards was not achieved until 1821, and Spain did not recognize the Independence of Mexico until 1836,” said Cabrera Geserick. “This is similar to the case [in the U.S.], since the United States celebrates Independence by commemorating the moment when Congress adopted the Act of Independence, on July 4, 1776, but in reality Independence was not achieved until the signing of the Treaty of Paris, in 1783.”

Father José María Morelos, who continued the war after Father Hidalgo’s death, is credited with declaring September 16 Independence Day.

Cinco de Mayo, on the other hand, commemorates the Battle of Puebla, said Cabrera Geserick. The battle, which was the first major confrontation of the Second Franco-Mexican war, took place on May 5, 1862 and pitted about 4,500 Mexican soldiers against an invading French force of roughly 6,500 soldiers.

The Mexican forces, under the direction of 33-year-old General Ignacio Zaragoza, managed to claim an unlikely victory. The French suffered 491 deaths while 89 Mexican soldiers lost their lives in the battle. Napoleon III eventually sent 30,000 more troops to Mexico to bolster the French invasion, which ultimately led to a French victory and installation of Maximilian I as Emperor of Mexico.

“The battle of Cinco de Mayo represented a victory for the Mexican army over what was considered the most important army in the world at that moment,” said Cabrera Geserick. “The French had to retreat, but unfortunately, they soon returned with a larger army, and imposed a new government in Mexico, a monarchy under the control of Emperor Maximilian I, an important member of the Austrian Habsburg house.”

Despite the eventual French victory in the war, the Battle of Puebla is seen as an important moment as it provided a national rallying point for Mexicans at the time and still represents a significant moment for Mexican communities in the U.S. and Mexico, specifically as it relates to defending Mexico from the imperialistic aggression of outside nations.

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is national holiday, but it is most heavily celebrated in Puebla. Unlike the celebrations that take place in the U.S., however, Mexican Cinco de Mayo festivities hearken back to the original battle that inspired the holiday.

“Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in Mexico, and May 5 is a paid holiday,” said Cabrera Geserick. “Even so, commemorations are not as wide and popular as in the U.S. The most important celebrations happen in Puebla itself, where there is a large parade that includes schools, floats, marching bands, and members of indigenous groups and the army. The presence of an important representative of the government is expected, and often the President of Mexico attends the celebrations.”

“Other than the parade, you can witness a reenactment of the battle of 1862 outside of Puebla, but the rest of the country usually does not prepare any large commemorations. There may be small commemorations in certain schools across the country, but they are organized only for internal purposes.”

In the U.S., Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated since the late 1800s. It was likely first observed by Mexican families that chose to stay on their lands in what is now the Southwestern U.S. Since then, “several factors, like the Bracero Program during WWI and WWII, and the social disruption produced by the Mexican Revolution, Cinco de Mayo survived as a traditional holiday that served to connect people with Mexican heritage,” said Cabrera Geserick.

Cinco de Mayo is widely celebrated in the southwestern U.S. and large cities throughout the country, though events in this country rarely hearken back to the battle of Puebla that originated the holiday. In the U.S., celebrations vary from tequila-soaked glorified frat parties at restaurants like Aunt Chilada’s or Loco Patron to the Cinco de Mayo Phoenix Festival, which amounts to a Mexican-American cultural celebration.

The Cinco de Mayo Phoenix Festival takes place May 7 and 8 on Washington Street in downtown Phoenix and features performances by Thee Latin All Stars, Little Joe y la Familia and others.

“For when [Cinco de Mayo in the U.S.] became what is now, it is hard to say, but it definitely is a recent development, possibly associated with the expansion of citizenship for Mexican residents during the Reagan and Clinton administrations,” said Cabrera Geserick. “Those events redefined the position of Mexicans and Mexican descendants in the United States. In some way, it has become the equivalent of St. Patrick's Day or Columbus Day. St. Patrick's is a day to celebrate the Irish contribution to U.S. culture, and originally, Columbus Day represented the same for Italian culture. Cinco de Mayo is, therefore, the day in which the people of the United States celebrate the importance and influence of Mexican culture in the U.S. And, as St. Patrick's Day, it has become exclusively a party day instead of a day of reflection on the relevance of Mexican culture in the U.S.”

That being said, even Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the U.S. have some basis in the historical relevance of the Battle of Puebla, especially as it relates to the American Civil War. The French under Napoleon III had territorial interests in Latin America and interest in supporting the Confederacy, so any Mexican victory over the French forces in the Americas served Union interests.

So, as you’re getting ready to tip back your upteenth tequila shot on Cinco de Mayo, take a moment to raise your glass towards Puebla (that’s southeast of here, by the way).

Wayne Schutsky is a senior contributor to Modern Times Magazine.
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