Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cinco de Mayo

Adapted from Louis M. Holscher, Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days, edited by Len Travers.

Americans often confuse Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May, with Mexico's Independence Day, which is celebrated on September 16. Cinco de Mayo commemorates Gen. Ignacio Zaragosa's victory on May 5, 1862, over the French army at Puebla, Mexico.

Although the Battle of Puebla was rendered insignificant by later French victories, it infused the Mexican people with pride and patriotism it had rarely enjoyed, especially after the defeat by the United States in the Mexican-American War. Thus, after many tragedies and setbacks, at the Battle at Puebla the Mexican people were able to rally against the French invasion and be justly proud of being Mexican. Yo soy Mexicano ("I am Mexican") became a positive statement, a symbol of Mexican unity, and a source of pride. For Mexicans, Cinco de Mayo has come to represent national sovereignty and the right of self-determination. There is also an ethnic dimension; the ability of an indigenous people to defend themselves from military and cultural takeover and preserve their traditions. The later defeat of the French also symbolized an end to foreign intervention, the last time a large-scale European army would invade the Americas. Hence, it is a day of joyous affirmation of political and cultural identity.

Historical Background

The history of Cinco de Mayo is one of the major David and Goliath stories in North America. A poorly trained and organized Mexican army defeated a highly trained and well-organized French army. During the 1850s, the decade after the Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a financially unstable Mexico experienced a severe economic crisis. In 1855, Benito Juarez became the Minister of Justice and issued a series of reforms that limited the power of the Catholic Church. In 1857, the progressives led by Juarez adopted a new constitution for Mexico in hopes of dealing with the unstable political and financial situation; conservatives vigorously opposed it. These events lead to civil war that brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy. In response to the financial disaster Juarez suspended foreign debt payments for a two-year period. European banks rejected the moratorium on repayment, and Spanish, British, and French forces seized the gulf coast city of Veracruz. The Mexican government agreed to resume payments, and the Spanish and British forces withdrew. Much of the debt was owed to France, and Napoleon III of France used the conflict as an excuse to expand French influence in Mexico and establish a French Catholic monarchy in Mexico City. Napoleon III was led to believe by Mexican conservatives that the French would be seen as liberators, and that Mexicans would welcome the stability of a European-styled government.

A French army of 6,000 men was sent to Veracruz and marched overland toward Mexico City. The French decided to attack the city of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The Mexican forces under the leadership of Gen. Ignacio Zaragosa numbered about 5,000 troops and were not as well armed as the French forces. The Mexican troops were mostly indigenous peasants and were poorly trained and equipped; for example, they included many state militiamen who lacked uniforms and were sometimes armed only with machetes. At the time, the French army was considered one of the best in the world and did not expect much resistance. In addition, the United States was embroiled in its Civil War and thus was thought unlikely to interfere in French plans to control Mexico. Three times the French army attacked the fortified positions surrounding Puebla and was repulsed all three times. After the third assault Gen. Zaragosa ordered his cavalry to attack the retreating French army; only the intervention of a thunderstorm ended the fighting, and the defeated French withdrew. Leading the attack on Gen. Zaragosa's right flank was young Porfirio Diaz, a future leader of Mexico. Fewer than 100 Mexican soldiers were killed, while the French losses numbered between 460 and 1,000. Despite its tremendous advantages, an army of one of the most powerful nations in the world was defeated by the smaller, less experienced, and outgunned Mexican army.

While news of the victory inspired many in Mexico, Napoleon III answered with more troops, and Puebla fell to the French in May 1863. They soon entered Mexico City, and the Juarez government was forced to flee. The majority of Mexicans continued to support Juarez and used guerilla tactics to harass the French and Mexican Imperial forces. In March 1867, nearly four years later, the French left, tired of their experiment in Mexico. Forces loyal to Juarez soon defeated the Mexican Imperial army, and Archduke Maximillian of Austria, who had accepted the crown of Mexico from Napoleon III, was captured and executed. President Juarez returned to power and triumphantly entered Mexico City to take over control of the government.

Celebrations—Mexico and the United States

Cinco de Mayo is a national holiday in Mexico and was first celebrated under French rule. The name of the city, Puebla, was even changed to Puebla de Zaragosa. However, it is not celebrated in Mexico to the same extent that it is by Mexican Americans in the United States, mainly because in Mexico the 16th of September (Independence Day) is considered the more important holiday. In Mexico it is more of a regional holiday and is celebrated most vigorously in the state of Puebla, especially in its capital city of the same name. Although there are celebrations nationwide, they are all on a lesser scale than in Puebla. In the United States, Cinco de Mayo celebrations range from the three-day extravaganza on Olvera Street and in other parts of downtown Los Angeles, to small events sponsored by schools, community organizations, and commercial businesses. It is celebrated throughout the United States, wherever there are communities of people of Mexican ancestry, including the Southwest, southern California, and parts of the Northwest, Midwest, Northeast, and the South. Particularly well known is the celebration in Los Angeles on the streets near City Hall. Common festivities include parades, mariachi and other kinds of Mexican music, dancing, meals featuring Mexican food, sports events, beauty contests, and more. PiƱatas are also common at Cinco de Mayo events. Thus, it is a time to celebrate being of Mexican ancestry, and to share with community folks and others Mexican and Mexican American culture. Many of the large events in the United States have parades, car shows, music, and food as part of the festivities.

As in Mexico, commercial interests in the United States have increasingly promoted Cinco de Mayo in order to sell food, beverages, and a variety of other products. Some even view it as a Mexican St. Patrick's Day—basically a day to drink beer and other alcoholic beverages. However, there are also many public and private noncommercial Cinco de Mayo celebrations throughout the United States, some very small and some quite large. Many community activists accuse the major beer companies of “hijacking” Cinco de Mayo and turning it into an excuse to sell beer and tequila. Marketing the holiday to both Mexican Americans and other Americans, millions of dollars are spent each year to promote Cinco de Mayo as a drinking holiday, oftentimes by Mexican breweries, blurring its significance.

In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is seen as a day to celebrate Mexican American heritage more than a day to commemorate a battle victory. Besides being an excuse to party for some people, events and celebrations on this day educate the American people about Mexican American culture and history. It is a day for people of Mexican ancestry to maintain and reaffirm their roots; a day to celebrate their ethnic and cultural traditions. Mexican Americans celebrate the holiday as an appreciation of its cultural significance—victory in the face of great odds and the patriotism it generated—more than its historical significance. It is and can be used as a learning experience to close the cultural gap between Mexican Americans and other ethnic groups. Other reasons why Cinco de Mayo is widely celebrated in the United States include the fact that Gen. Zaragosa, the leader of the Battle of Puebla, was born in Texas while it was still part of Mexico; thus for many he is the first Chicano hero. In the United States, non-Mexican American candidates often attempt to show their knowledge of people of Mexican ancestry and their commitment to community concerns by participating in Cinco de Mayo events. For example, presidential candidate John Kerry spoke in East Los Angeles on May 5, 2005, on issues important to the Mexican American community, and George W. Bush responded that as a former governor of Texas he had long been committed to helping Mexican Americans. It was not by accident that John Kerry's national co-chair for his election campaign was Antonio Villaraigosa, a Los Angeles city councilman elected mayor of Los Angeles in 2005.

Look for tomorrow's post for some delicious recipes to enhance your Cinco de Mayo celebration!

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