by Greg Martinez
There is an old joke that goes something like this:
Q: Is there a 4th of July in England?
A: Yes, and there is a 5th and 6th also.
The point is that they don’t celebrate the 4th of July in England. You could almost say the same thing for Cinco de Mayo. We celebrate it here in the United States, but it’s not celebrated nationally in Mexico. It’s not a “real” holiday in the United States; the banks and government agencies are still open. It has become the Mexican-American equivalent of St. Patrick’s day – a drinking holiday.
A common misconception is that Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day. Actually, that is September 16. There is an old saying in Mexico – Porque los Gringos celebran el Cinco de Mayo? Porque no pueden pronunciar el dieciséis de Septiembre. Roughly translated? “Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo because they can’t pronounce dieciséis de Septiembre.” While there is probably an element of truth to that, Americans don’t celebrate any other country’s Independence Day.
The origins of the celebration of Cinco de Mayo go back to the year 1862, when 4,000 ragtag Mexican troops defeated an invading French army of 8,000 in the Battle of Puebla on May 5. At that time, the French Army was considered to be the mightiest on earth. In the California gold country town of Columbia (now Columbia State Park), Mexican miners were so overjoyed at the news that they spontaneously fired off rifles shots and fireworks, sang patriotic songs, and made impromptu speeches. The holiday has been celebrated in California ever since. It gained popularity in the 1940s during the rise of the Chicano movement. The holiday became commercialized by alcohol companies as an opportunity to tap into the Mexican-American market and evolved into the celebration we know today.
From a historical perspective, the first battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 was a milestone. It marked the first defeat of the French Army in nearly 50 years since the famous battle of Waterloo. It was also a powerful demonstration of Mexican pride. In its humiliating defeat in the Mexican American War, Mexico offered little resistance to the invading American army on their march to Mexico City. The French defeat at Puebla may have derailed their plans to join the American Civil War on the side of the south. This was also the last time a foreign army invaded the Americas.
The French were so embarrassed by their loss to the Mexicans that they returned a year later with 30,000 troops and laid siege to Puebla. The Mexicans held out for two months before falling. France installed Maximilian I as Emperor of Mexico. He ruled for three years before he was overthrown and put before a firing squad. His last words of “Viva Mexico” summarize what this holiday is all about.
Feliz Cinco De Mayo!
Staff Writer, Greg Martinez.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those
of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.