Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day, which is celebrated in Mexico on Sept. 16. If May 5 is not Mexican Independence, what event in Mexican history is Cinco de Mayo connected to?
On May 5, 1862 a small, ill-equipped Mexican army defeated a much larger and better-equipped invading French army outside of the city of Puebla, briefly stopping the French army’s march toward Mexico City. The French, though, eventually returned, defeated the Mexican army and in time placed the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian as the second Emperor of Mexico.
The Battle of Puebla, as “Cinco de Mayo” is known in Mexico, is a David over Goliath type of story. It is also an example of a small, independent and poor nation fighting off and defeating — even briefly — a much larger, more powerful and better equipped invading foreign army.
So why do — or should — we celebrate a small battle that took place more than 150 years ago? Even Mexico does not have the kind of “mass celebrations” we have in the U.S. While in the city of Puebla and surrounding towns, the Batalla de Puebla is still celebrated. But it certainly is not a national holiday like Sept. 16th or Nov. 20, when Mexico celebrates the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. This was a civil war that engulfed the country for 10 years and significantly shaped the nation’s 20th century history.
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Some of my ethnic Mexican friends refuse to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, saying it is a recently “made up” holiday invented by beer companies to sell more of their products.
But is this really the case?
While it’s true that American business owners have used the holiday since at least the second half of the 20th century to market and connect with their Latino consumers, there is evidence demonstrating that ethnic Mexicans were celebrating Cinco de Mayo as far back as the 19th century.
While the festivities in the late 1800s may have little in common with the way the holiday is celebrated in the 21st century today, there is unmistakable evidence that Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the U.S. are not a 20th century phenomenon.
In fact, in the last chapter of his book, “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition,” UCLA Professor David Hayes-Bautista discusses how Cinco de Mayo was “shaped and re-shaped” from 1868 to 2011 in southern California.
While it is now clear that the celebration of the holiday in the United Stated dates back about 150 years, what should we “do” with this holiday today?
Yes, it’s good to take some time and celebrate, but I want to encourage all of us — even those of us of Mexican heritage — to take some time to learn some real history and culture of Mexico and Mexicans in the United States. And by this, I do not mean simply searching on the internet or going on Wikipedia. While we can begin there, we must remember there is plenty of misinformation and fake news, as well as fake history, online.
There are plenty of good books and authors that will allow us to better understand Mexico and its people. Therefore, as you start putting together your spring and summer reading list, be sure to add the books of some of my favorite Mexican and Mexican American authors like Carlos Fuentes, Sandra Cisneros, Juan Rulfo, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Tomas Rivera, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Elena Poniatowska and Cherrie Moraga. Let’s read, learn and enjoy!
Martin Valadez is a past Reader Representative on the Herald Editorial Board and is Vice President of Business Development and External Affairs for Tri-Cities Community Health.