A perspective on Cinco de Mayo comparing mexican versus american viewpoints
■ By Gabriela Cerrillo / Contributed
Why does Cinco de Mayo have such an influence in the United States (principally in areas that border Mexico) but does not have the same importance in Mexico?
From limited regions in Mexico celebrating a minor battle in the war between Mexico and France, Cinco de Mayo has become an enormous commercial celebration in the United States with the consumption of Mexican food, beer, and margaritas. Why is Cinco de Mayo such a big deal in the U.S.?
My questions about the relatively disparate significance of Cinco de Mayo celebrations happening on the two sides of the border started to dispel when I saw the number of Mexican-Americans celebrating Cinco de Mayo and surmised that their celebratory attitudes were possibly brought to the U.S. by people who emigrated from Mexico to the United States.
Confusion set in once again, however, when I witnessed the number of Anglo-Saxons wearing charro hats and tipping margaritas while wiggling to mariachi music in some mexican food place. So I asked myself, what meaning can Cinco de Mayo have for “gringos”? Why do they celebrate? Why is Cinco de Mayo so important in the United States and not in Mexico? Am I missing something?
Independence Day versus Cinco de Mayo
As a child experiencing Sept. 16, I remember the sky being lit up with fireworks, mexican flags being waved, live Mariachi music, noisy rattles, hot tamales and champurrado, cotton candy, children with their faces painted green, white, and red, and huge crowds yelling ¡Viva México! while the president in Mexico City, the governors of the 31 states, and mayors of hundreds of mexican cities shouted out: “Viva la Independencia.”
Independence Day (Día de la Independencia) is a Mexican holiday to celebrate the “Cry of Independence” on Sept. 16, 1810, which started a revolt against the Spaniards. It follows from the day of the Cry of Dolores (El Grito de Dolores) on September 15.
Compared to the celebration of Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo is not a big event. In Mexico, it is known as the “Commemoration of the Battle of Puebla,” an event in which the French army was defeated by the Mexicans on the May 5, l862. Ironically, the situation changed when a few days later the Mexicans lost the war.
Nevertheless, the victory of Puebla is held as an honor and the occasion for a relatively minor celebration. The anniversary of this battle is celebrated sporadically in Mexico with some symbolic events, for example the army swears allegiance to the country; the president gives a short televised speech from the capital eulogizing Juarez and shouting Viva México.
In schools, teachers recap in a single class the Battle of Puebla among other historical events, and children prepare paperboards highlighting historical events, including the Battle of Puebla as part of their school projects. The State of Puebla and other larger states in Mexico are the exception to this as they do celebrate with parades, bullfights, folk-dancing, cultural festivals, piñatas and traditional mexican activities.
Why Cinco de Mayo?
Many reasons exist for the Cinco de Mayo celebration in the United States, and without a doubt, the main reason suggests that americans started this celebration immediately after the outcome of the battle in 1862 that left the possibility of a French invasion of the United States practically nonexistent. Another factor is the progressively increasing Mexican-American population in the United States that has driven the celebration of this date as a cultural element since the 70s and 80s.
Some Mexican residents in the U.S. however, are resentful of this development in light of the hypocrisy of a certain sector of the population who celebrates Mexico in a big way on this date and then discriminates against Mexicans. But then, too, there are many Americans that are interested in other cultures and civilizations who have no problem with immigrants.
José Alamillo, Cinco de Mayo researcher in the United States and professor of ethnic studies from Washington State University in Pullman, maintains that this date became popular in the 50’s and 60’s as an outgrowth of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy that was created earlier to serve as a bridge between two cultures.
On the other hand, the study “Cinco de Mayo’s first seventy-five years in Alta California: from spontaneous behavior to sedimented memory, 1852 to 1937” headed by Hayes Bautista and Cynthia L. Chamberlain, states that the Cinco de Mayo celebration was born in California and has been celebrated since 1963. Presently, the history of the day has been lost because people remember that the date is important, but few seem to know why.
From commemorative event to commercial celebration
Even though the origins of the celebration are murky, there is little doubt that only St. Patrick’s Day in the United States exceeds Cinco de Mayo in the amount of alcohol consumed. The sale of mexican beer of all brands in the U.S. increases, as well as mexican style food in restaurants and taco shops.
I performed a simple poll of 20 persons in San Diego by asking what Cinco de Mayo meant to them. The first group of 10 were of different race, ages, and economic status. The second group of 10 were Mexican-Americans of different ages and economic status.
The first group responded that they mistakenly thought that Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of Mexican Independence similar to the 4th of July. Some said that they didn’t celebrate the day but were aware of the date due to all the specials and marketing of restaurants, mainly of mexican food. Only one person knew that Cinco de Mayo is the commemoration of the mexican victory over the French occupation in the 19th Century. He said that he loves to celebrate the day because it gives him a good opportunity to experience Mexican culture by consuming food, beer, margaritas, tequila, mariachi music, and the dancing that some places offer.
Additionally, the majority of people in the second group responded that they did not know why Cinco de Mayo was celebrated but that their parents and grandparents did so and were accustomed to celebrating the day. They admitted that they identify with the date in view of their Mexican roots and that they enjoy celebrating the occasion consuming beer and alcohol, eating mexican food, and singing and dancing to the beat of music not necessarily mexican.
I concluded that Cinco de Mayo, in addition to being a symbol of mexican nationality and a reason to commemorate a relatively unimportant historical event in Mexico, for the United States is mainly a commercial event that presents an opportunity for businesses to make money by increasing sales. It’s also an exotic celebration for Americans that like Mexican culture. For Mexican-Americans, it’s an occasion to party, have fun, and at some point in the festivity feel a certain cultural identity. Commercial celebration or not, Cinco de Mayo is a date that creates a powerful bridge, as Franklin Roosevelt said, that miraculously unites two cultures that at times may have what appear to be irreconcilable differences.
Nonetheless, Happy Cinco de Mayo!
Gabriela Cerrillo is a graphic designer who is responsible each week for the design and layout of The Valley Chronicle.