What is Cinco de Mayo?

If you didn’t know any better, you would agree with the idiot who recently appeared on a late night show and described Cinco de Mayo as a holiday invented in the US “to celebrate our neighbors to the South, by drinking” (see part 5 of this episode of Conan). Long ago seized by the alcohol industry, for far too many people Cinco de Mayo is a day to drink margaritas or Coronas, all while wearing a straw sombrero.

If you fall into this category, you are possibly racist but most definitely a pendejo. Well, profe is here to tell you: ¡No seas pendejo!

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla of 1862, when Mexico successfully defeated the French imperialist army of Napoleon III. The better-equipped and more numerous French forces had invaded Mexico. For that reason the day came to symbolize the victory of the poor but righteous against the more powerful. This historic day in the life of the Mexican nation–a nation which had been severely compromised by the loss of almost half its territory to the equally imperialist United States in 1848–-was celebrated almost immediately as a day of independence and freedom from foreign control.

But the day was not just a Mexican holiday. The events in Puebla also meant something to the growing number of Mexican Americans in places like California.

Spanish language newspaper like La Voz de Méjico provided its delayed coverage of events in the south, including what they described as “our triumph against the French” at the Battle of Puebla. Exclaiming “¡¡Viva Méjico!! “¡¡Viva la Independencia!! “¡¡Vivan los valientes soldados Mejicanos!!,” the paper left little question where its sympathies lie.

As the exiled government of Benito Júarez sought financial and political support from abroad, Mexicans in the States worked to aid the restoration of Republican rule in their homeland. They created Juntas Patrióticas in the US, groups with “the noble desire to directly or indirectly help and defend our country.” Beginning in 1862, that support took the form of monetary donations. At first contributing to a commemorative tribute for the victory of General Ignacio Zaragoza against the French, fundraising campaigns evolved to more directly serve “the war effort” of the exiled government. Juntas “raised funds to provide medical care for wounded soldiers and support for the widows and orphans of Mexican soldiers killed in battle,” as well as secure the passage of former prisoners of war from France and to award medals for distinguished military efforts.

The lasting effect of this was important to Mexican American community formation here, as well as Mexican nation-building in the homeland. Cinco de Mayo became an annual event for commemoration and celebration in the US, uniting the Spanish-speaking in their new homes and creating venues for them to showcase their presence.

So do yourself a favor this Cinco de Mayo and stay true to the past. No! I don’t mean go beat up a Frenchman. I mean recognize that your commemoration of something seemingly corporate and racist can actually involve something much more meaningful than a beer and a hat. You are part of a long history in this country, one that took pride and strength from this day.

Cinco de Mayo and Latino Visibility

One of the most pressing issues facing Latinos in the United States is representation. The experiences, histories, and present-day struggles of Latinos simply do not find their way into the U.S. line of sight in any meaningful way. To somebody on the “outside” this might seems strange. After all, doesn’t everybody know about J-Lo and Salma Hayek? Aren’t we obsessed with the political issue of immigration? Isn’t salsa the number 1 condiment in the nation? And isn’t everybody aware that today is Cinco de Mayo?

The skewed way our Latino experiences in the U.S. are incorporated into the mainstream are troubling. Cinco de Mayo is a case in point. Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla (1862), when Mexico successfully battled against the French imperialist army within its own national borders. This historic day in the life of the Mexican nation–a nation which had been severely compromised by the loss of almost half its territory to the equally imperialist United States in 1848–is a day of celebration of independence and freedom from foreign control. But on this side of the border, it is a day to get drunk at during happy hour at your local Mexican restaurant.

Cinco de Mayo is an advertising bonaza, when corporations use Mexican/Latin themes to sell beer, food, and other items, most of which are geared toward some kind of festive debauchery. Other images you will see today commemorate the day with some trite representation of Mexican culture, only to de-politicize and de-historicize the day in general.

In most cases, these images and representations aren’t the problem in and of themselves. I’ve got nothing against a cold beer, just as I have nothing against George Lopez and Carlos Mencia. The problem is when these precious few become fully representative of Latino life and history. The problem is when these few representations define an entire people for the mainstream, white U.S. populace because, simply, they have no other images to deepen their understanding.

Cinco de Mayo is a day of celebration in Mexico. For Latinos in the U.S., it should be a day of careful thought.