Monday, May 05, 2008

Pop Quiz: Why is Cinco de Mayo a Big Deal, or Is It?

Ah, testing is over….Spring has sprung….and the fifth of May brings cries of Happy Cinco de Mayo, Elementaryhistoryteacher! Students discuss how their families will invade the nearest Mexican restaurant for special deals, free beer for the adults at some establishments, and lively music.

Whoa there…I like Mexican food, music, and an occasional beer as much as the next person, but exactly what are we celebrating?

It’s lunchtime and lots of people are moving about the campus, so I send out a group of kids with clipboards in hand and ask them to take an informal survey asking any adult in the hallway, media center, lunchroom, or main office why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated. I send out another group to ask students at lunch the same question.

The two groups remaining in the classroom stay busy until our survey takers return. Fifteen minutes later the data is passed along to the groups that stayed in the room, and they get busy analyzing the answers.

What they discovered is that is doesn’t really matter whether the person is old or young, white, black, or Mexican… one in our survey group can really truly can state that they know why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated. Some think they know, but they aren’t sure. A few adults stated they thought the day was set aside to celebrate Mexican independence like the Fourth of July. Others felt that the day must commemorate a great victory of some sort.

Wrong and wrong, sort of.

Cinco de Mayo is not a day of independence for Mexicans….It is September 16th. Cinco de Mayo is not a holiday recognized by the Mexican government. It is a regional holiday celebrated in the area of Puebla to commemorate the Battle of Puebla. It occurred in 1862 when the Mexican forces beat back French forces, but only for a bit. A year later Mexico was totally defeated by the French, and the Hapsburgs began to rule. The day began to be celebrated by Mexicans living in the United States to celebrate resistance to French rule in Mexico.

Should the fifth of May be such a big deal? This editiorial from the New York Times examines a little of the history and discusses why you might be ordering a Corona this afternoon or tonight.

Over the years Cinco de Mayo has become an informal holiday to recognize and appreciate Mexican culture here in the United States, and after our survey and research into the matter it was decided that learning more about a culture and celebrating it a bit isn’t such a bad thing, but perhaps we all need to know what we are celebrating before biting into that chalupa or asking for another Corona.


Dan Edwards said...

Cinco de Mayo is not a big deal in Mexico. It seems to be a growing event in the US., as commercial interest seek money from our growing Hispanic (many of whom are Mexican) population.

From a historical point of view, it is one of the few battles "won" by the Mexican Army. Of course, the French forces that were sent to Mexico were not in very good physical condition. By time they'd reached Puebla, they'd marched up the mountains from Vera Cruz and many were suffering from dysentery.

On the Mexican side, it made a hero out of a cavalry general named Diaz, who later became one of the most corrupt, ruthless dictators, oops, I mean Presidents in Mexico's sad political history. Among other things, Diaz introduced to Mexico "Los Rurales", his own version of Russian Czar Ivan "the Terrible's" Oprichniki, a home-made terrorist force designed to punish, harass and intimidate the peasants of their country. IIRC, among other horrors, the Rurales raped a young girl and her brother, Francisco, sought revenge. He got a gun and shot some of them, then took to the "outlaw" trail. Later, he made a name for himself, Francisco Dorantes (?), better known as "Pancho Villa". But I digress from Cinco De Mayo. Viva la Fiesta ! Y, no borracho !

EHT said...

Wow, thanks for the extra details. I didn't have time for that this afternoon. For those not in the know Mexico does have a very sad political history. It's well worth a bit of research.

Amy The Black said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one trying to get the word out. I wondered why the 5th of May was such a big deal and researched it. Then I tried to tell as many people as possible that it wasn't an official Mexican holiday, but basically a commercial holiday hyped to sell more beer.