Happy Cinco de Mayo to all!
So – how many of you know exactly what Cinco de Mayo is? (Other than Spanish for “fifth of May.”)
No – It isn’t a day dedicated to getting drunk – nor is it a celebration of Mexican Independence Day. That day is September 16th. It also is not a major Mexican holiday contrary to popular belief.
But first a little history…
Cinco de Mayo commemorates the victory of the Mexican army over the French army at the battle of Puebla in 1862. This battle was important to the United States as well as to Mexico. It seems that the Emperor Napoleon III was not a big fan of the United States. During the US Civil War he backed the Confederacy. The victory by the Mexicans disrupted his plans to help resupply the Confederate Army and just 14 months later the Union army won at the Battle of Gettysburg. The US then returned the favor by supplying the Mexican army with weapons and ammunition so that they could eventually drive the French out of Mexico. As a matter of fact American soldiers were allowed to serve in the Mexican army with their US uniforms and weapons in the war against the French.
Jump forward to a “little” incident known around the world as Pearl Harbor. Thousands of Mexicans joined the U.S. military after Pearl Harbor to help their friends. Even more recently – during the war in the Persian Gulf Mexicans went to American consulates to try and help the US by joining the US military.
Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated in the area of Puebla as a regional holiday and in the 1950’s started being celebrated in the United States. Originally encouraged by civil rights activists as a celebration to encourage appreciation and harmony between the cultures of the US and Mexico, it became much more popular in the mid-1980s as beer companies and other marketing mavens realized that this could become a great tool to create festive parties all over the US.
As a result one can view it as a fake holiday – similar to Columbus Day for Italians. It can also be viewed as a holiday to celebrate one’s ancestry (or wannabe ancestry) similar to St. Patrick’s Day, Chinese New Year or Oktoberfest here in the U.S. Another way of looking at Cinco de Mayo and other ethnic holidays (real or not) is that it provides us, as Americans, with a reason to not only party, but also to explore and appreciate other cultures that contribute to the melting pot that America is. Thanks to those same marketing mavens and the internet, Cinco de Mayo is also "observed" in many other countries around the world as an excuse to party hearty! The date is also a big one for restaurants and bars as they hold special events and theme parties to encourage over-consumption of beer. And for the many people born on May 5th like my good friend Evan Green, it lets them have one heck of a birthday party celebrated by all those friends they've never met! So don't forget to wish all those birthday boys and girls a very Happy Birthday as you lift your drink in celebration today!
Of course despite the contributions of Mexico to American history prejudice has made Cinco de Mayo a hot button in the immigration debate. Traditionally the Speaker of the House would hold a Cinco de Mayo celebration on Capitol Hill and invite the Hispanic Caucus as well as other members of Congress and their staff. This year (2011) John Boehner, Speaker of the House, snubbed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus by canceling the Speaker’s celebration and telling them that they can do it themselves if they want to have a Cinco de Mayo party.
What are your Cinco de Mayo plans? For this German-Jewish American I intend to have enchiladas for dinner tonight as a tip of the hat to our Mexican neighbors and to all Mexican-Americans.