There are many religious, cultural, regional, ancestral, indigenous, artistic and state and federal holidays celebrated by Mexican people. Cinco de Mayo has never been at the top. In fact, it is a holiday mostly celebrated in the state of Puebla, where the battle took place. I have family that lives there, and the nun at our local mission is from there, so I have no ill will toward Puebla, or the date.
Historically, the battle of Puebla was significant because it was fought by Gen. Zaragoza at great odds and with very few men. The French were considered one of the most elite fighting forces in the world, and they totally outnumbered the Mexican army. Elsewhere in Mexico there was a free for all. The newly formed republic of Mexico had many politicos vying for its power, which is precisely why the French (and later the U.S.) seized upon this moment of weakness and vulnerability to attack. Winning the battle for Mexico in Puebla was a miracle, and one which boosted morale throughout the country and even reached the happy ears of Mexicans miners during gold rush in California. But, the truth is, cinco de mayo is a regional celebration which most of Mexico and Mexicans ignore. For the record, Mexican independence day is not cinco de mayo, it’s September 16. So why does everyone non-Mexican think cinco de mayo is our independence day? For that matter, why do Anglos readily celebrate a holiday that means nothing to most of us?
The answer, like most things American, is commercialization and corporate interests. Although Mexicans in this country have tirelessly fought to celebrate meaningful holidays, like September 16 or November 20 (the start of the Mexican Revolution), cities and states across the country have pushed back fearing the creation of “ethnic solidarity”. This is the same racist argument you will hear from Arizona’s superintendent of schools and the school board in their reasoning for ending Mexican ethnic studies. Yet, in 2005, our president proclaimed that cinco de mayo should be celebrated everywhere! It sounds like a miracle that they would let us celebrate anything at all, until you realize that beer companies were behind this “holiday”. In the mid 80s beer companies trying to find another great “holiday” in which to sell lots of beer (like St. Patrick’s day for the Irish), decided to create a drinking holiday for Mexicans. One can only assume they picked cinco de mayo for its lack of ability to create any “ethnic solidarity” and for its relative ease of pronunciation.
I find it more than a bit insulting that of all the wonderful holidays my people celebrate, the Anglo culture invented a holiday to sell us beer rather than celebrate with us something that is truly meaningful to our gente, our people. How else can one feel, but tokanized, when you find out that Anglos know practically nothing about Mexican culture and heritage, save the fact that cinco de mayo is a day to get drunk and celebrate Mexico’s Independence — except it’s not. In the weeks leading up to cinco de mayo I received two rather insulting invitations. One announced a cinco de mayo celebration at a local church which doubled as a fundraiser for a church in…. Guatemala. The other was from a bar who cleverly invited patrons to their renamed event “Cinco de Drinko”.
A Mexican blogger discussing her confusion in an essay called Non-Cinco de Mayo wrote that it was similar to the experience of Alice in Wonderland when Alice celebrates her un-birthday, “… I love the scene where Alice gets invited to the tea party celebrated by Mad Hatter and March Hare to celebrate their un-birthdays, and then she realizes it is her un-birthday as well because it IS NOT her actual birthday so they start celebrating! That’s how I feel about Cinco de Mayo in the United States; it is a celebration of the Non-Cinco de Mayo Day, because people have it all wrong. To read more: http://totinaxieli.blogspot.com/2011/05/non-cinco-de-mayo-day.html
But then why do so many Mexicans fall into line and celebrate this day? Because it is what we have been given.
Some argue that we don’t need to accept this. As Mexicans we can create our own celebrations, whether they are regarded as “official” or not, and tell the gringos to stick their cinco where the mayo don’t shine. But, others have appropriated the day as an opportunity to show their Mexican pride. Parades, dances, and events showcasing Mexicaness are on display in over 100 cities in the U.S. on cinco de Mayo. And, you need to have Mexican collusion, approval and participation for that to be happening.
This turn of events is not surprising to me at all. When you give a Mexican lemons, they start a fruit selling business. This is what Mexicans always do. Our people in the north were given flour, and they made tortillas. Flour tortillas in Mexico were unheard of when I was growing up, corn was king. Corn masa and meal, however, were scarce up north where many Mexicans migrated to live and work. So we used the commodities available — flour — and created a new tortilla that is now widely available throughout Mexico and the U.S.. We take whatever is near us and use it to survive and succeed. Can we really be that upset at the resourceful Mexicans who saw cinco de mayo as an opportunity to showcase our national pride? I think not. Por eso somos Mexi-CANs not Mexi-can’ts.
But there is something to the idea of decolonizing our minds. Many of our children coming up need to know what’s real and what’s fabricated. I don’t mind if they chose to celebrate cinco de mayo, but they should do it consciously. They should know the true history of the celebration and weigh how they feel being Mexicans associated with a drinking holiday because beer companies wanted to break into the Mexican market. We also need to educate each other and find ways of moving from “acceptance” to “transcendence”.
After all, if we can figure out a way to make a meaningless holiday a source of Mexican pride, we can certainly figure out how to keep our important traditions and holidays alive for ourselves and our children regardless of beer company endorsements or presidential pronouncements.
So, while you drive down to the local watering hole for your Cinco de Drinko celebration and a chance to hit the taco bar, remember to put things into perspective and get ready to educate your dinner or drink partners on the real history behind cinco de mayo.