Friday, May 4, 2012

Cinco de Mayo: Past, Present and Future

Cinco de Mayo celebrations occur in over five hundred cities across the United States but mainly in the Southwest and California where Americans of Mexican descent make up an increasingly larger percentage of the population. Such celebrations are much less popular in Mexico with the exception of the city of Puebla and its environs. In its purest form, the festivities surrounding this important day in Mexican history honor the defeat by the Mexican military of the French troops who had invaded Mexico in the early 1860s to try to carry out Napoleon III’s ambition to establish a strong and permanent presence on the North American mainland—it already had such a presence in the Caribbean. President Benito Juárez had ordered General Ignacio Zaragoza to defend Puebla, a city close to Mexico City, and thereby slow the progress of over 7,000 French soldiers who had set out from Veracruz on Mexico’s east coast to help bring Mexico under French control. Despite having a superior military force, on May 5, 1862, the French were badly outmaneuvered and bloodied by a young Brigadier General, Porfirio Díaz who later ruled Mexico as president for over thirty years. Defeated by 4,000 badly equipped Mexican troops, the French troops retreated, and at least for the time being, Mexico resisted the French imposition of power. This was a great symbolic victory, although a year later 30,000 French troops routed the Mexican army and occupied Mexico City; Napoleon III imposed Emperor Maximilian I as French ruler of Mexico, a regime that lasted only three years.

Although some celebration organizers today have succeeded in linking Cinco de Mayo celebrations with its historical roots, it is fair to say that it has largely lost its original symbolic importance in the United States for several reasons. It is often referred to erroneously as Mexican Independence Day equivalent to the Fourth of July. (Mexico’s true day of independence is the Sixteenth of September that celebrates the defeat of the Spanish by insurgent troops that led eventually to Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821.) Also, in the past thirty years or so, the celebration in many cities has been taken over by sponsoring alcoholic beverage companies which in extreme cases has led to large scale excessive drinking and pubic rowdiness. Mexican and non-Mexican restaurants alike often take advantage of Cinco de Mayo to increase their profits by pushing cheap beer and Tequila. As a result of this unfortunate and cynical marketing strategy on the part of these companies and businesses, Cinco de Mayo is often referred to derisively as “Drinko de Mayo.” Chicano/a cultural critics have also taken these companies to task for perpetuating stereotypes about Mexicans and Mexican Americans. For example, advertising often features super macho males and seductive women.

Despite the commodification of Cinco de Mayo in recent years, this day still offers Mexican Americans an opportunity to celebrate with pride an historic event in Mexican history. It also potentially provides an opportunity for non-Mexican Americans to gain a balanced perspective on the many cultural and other contributions that Mexicans and Mexican Americans have made to this country for almost two hundred years.  

by Charles M. Tatum, Author of Lowriders in Chicano Culture: From Low to Slow to Show

 Charles M. Tatum is professor of Spanish in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He is the editor of the upcoming Encyclopedia of Latino Culture: From Calaveras to Quinceaneras that Greenwood Press will pubslish in the fall of 2013.

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