Okay, Cinco de Mayo is Not Mexican Independence Day. So, What is it? A Small Exploration of an American Holiday

cinco de mayo

 

 

Today is Cinco de Mayo.

Out on the inter webs, if you’re moving in circles similar to mine you’re probably inundated with memes and video clips all making sure you know that today is not Mexican Independence Day. Good information. Unfortunately, the presentations are almost always without nuance. Lots of finger waging. Not a lot of love. However, Cinco de Mayo is a many splendored thing, and a subject worth knowing a bit about.

I’ve fallen into the habit of annually sharing a small checklist of what Cinco de Mayo is and is not. Basically, it’s a small reflection on this day, together with a small pitch for why I think it is in fact a holiday we in the United States should be observing.

With, I quickly add, some serious caveats.

I feel a pretty good measure of discomfort at how the holiday has become the Mexican St Patrick’s Day. And I mean with all the ills that follow that sad degeneration of someone’s largely religious holiday into shamrocks and green beer. Except now with sombreros and margaritas.

Don’t get me wrong, lift a margarita toast if you want. Not that big a deal. But, there’s something a bit more juicy in this holiday for those willing to dig a tad deeper.

First, if you know anything about it, you know it is not Mexican Independence. That’s observed on September 16th. Cinco de Mayo marks a day a decade earlier, in 1862. It marks the Battle of Puebla, when a poorly armed Mexican army defeated a much larger, by most estimates twice their size, better trained French army.

Since that battle no country in the Americas has suffered an invasion from Europe. You could call it our pan-American independence day. And, me, I think that’s something worth celebrating.

And there’s more. Many scholars believe that if France prevailed in that battle there was a strong likelihood they would have later intervened in the American Civil War. Probably on the side of the Confederacy in order to break the Union blockade, which was playing havoc with French manufacture. Another reason we in the good old USofA should celebrate this day.

(And, just because it is cool to know, the leader of the Mexican army, General Ignacio Zaragoza was born in what we today call the state of Texas. So, we can say he is ours, here, as well. Whether we are Mexican or from the States we can claim him.)

Like for St Patrick’s Day, which has not historically been a major holiday in Ireland, Cinco de Mayo is not a federal holiday in Mexico. Although it is observed in the state of Puebla. It is in fact mostly a holiday here in the United States, continuously observed here in California since 1863. Wikipedia tells us “The holiday crossed over from California into the rest of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s but did not gain popularity until the 1980s when marketers, especially beer companies, capitalized on the celebratory nature of the day and began to promote it.”

Thank you, beer guys, for your crass move. Something good came of it.

First, it was a cultural event for Americans with ties to Mexico as well as immigrants. Gradually it has been claimed by the rest of us. Today Cinco de Mayo is a major public celebration in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, as well as smaller cities. I love that as it has traveled around the world and become a holiday observed in Tokyo where it is celebration of the Americas and not just Mexico.

For me Cinco de Mayo is so much a holiday for all of us. It’s observed by immigrants who have become American as a nostalgic nod to the motherland. And, rather more, it has spread and become part of the tapestry of American celebration, a moment when we all can be Mexican as a part of our larger, complex identity. And with that to recall something of our true American uniqueness, that we are a gathering of many cultures and traditions, not a melting pot, but a glorious mosaic. Upon closer examination of why our mix has worked so far, if imperfectly, but vastly better than pretty much any other place that includes multiple ethnicities, is because we’re less “out of many one,” and instead we’re more “many and one.”

So, it’s Cinco de Mayo! It is a time for us to celebrate the whole of Mexican culture, and as our holiday here in the States, how we all own a bit of it by virtue of being American in the big sense of that word, as well as in that more narrow use we usually give the word American. And, of course, of course, are owned a bit, as well by virtue of our deep Mexican connections. Interdependence works that way. And it is something beautiful to behold.

And, you know, in these days of such strife threatening the fabric of our country, with a president who ran on a platform of fear of the other and a tearing apart of the connections perhaps it’s a particularly good moment for us all to recall and to celebrate how big and complicated who we really are by virtue of being American. It is after all this experiment that is us, despite the many, many shortcomings, failures, and bad moves, remains something of a miracle. Our way of being both many and one is too rare in this world of ours. But, it is also a beacon of hope.

So, something to celebrate even if its just with a margarita and a small toast. And, hopefully, a bit of appreciation for our pan-American independence.

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