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Cinco De Mayo 2015

Date Published:

Cinco de Mayo is upon us again, so Cabo San Lucas is gearing up for a huge celebration, right? Festivals, parades and plenty of parties? Well, not exactly. Cinco de Mayo – otherwise known as the 5th of May – is not quite what most Americans think it is.

True, Cinco de Mayo is a federal holiday. Banks are closed and school children get the day off. But ask an American what this day is all about, and most aren’t really sure. So I asked some fellow Americans. Their answers were interesting.

For some, my question prompted another question. “Mexican Independence Day?” asks Culann from Baltimore. This is a common misconception.

“Is it a real holiday or something made up in the US to sell chips and Salsa?” asks Neal from New Jersey.

“A way for Corona and Jose Cuervo to pad their bottom line before the summer officially/unofficially begins?” wonders Rich from New Jersey.

“I thought it was a fabricated holiday to spur sales of something. Not sure,” says Bobby from Seattle.

Most people don’t know what the day memorializes, but they are clearly under the impression that the holiday was co-opted by commercial interests.  Cinco de Mayo has in fact become a commercial holiday; but however odd it may seem, it is a commercial holiday in the United States, not in Mexico. I’ll return to that in just one moment.

Despite appearances, Cinco de Mayo is not the Mexican Independence Day either; that is commemorated on September 16th. The Mexican Independence day in September is cause for celebration, much like the Fourth of July in the states. Parades, barbecues and fireworks bring families and friends together for parties, patriotism, and yes, copious amounts of beer.

Then what exactly is honored on May 5th if it isn’t Independence Day? Nicole from Washington, D.C. was one of the few I asked who came close to the true historical significance of Cinco de Mayo. “The Mexican army's victory over France at Puebla,” she said. “Don't ask me what they were fighting over though or when, although I want to say 1800s, after the American Civil War ended.”

After the Mexican-American War, but prior to the US Civil War, Mexico fell into an economic crisis and was unable to repay foreign debts. After negotiations, representatives of Great Britain and Spain left Mexico content with a promise to pay within two years, but France insisted on collecting its money, even if by force. Napoleon III named Maximillian, the Archduke of Austria, as the new leader of Mexico in an attempt to dissolve the Mexican government and establish a monarchy favorable to France. As French troops marched toward Mexico City, they were met in battle on May 5, 1862 by a much smaller but quite tenacious group of Mexican soldiers led by General Ignacio Zaragoza. The ill-prepared Mexican soldiers defeated a well-equipped French army that not only outnumbered them 2 to 1, but had not been defeated in more than 50 years.

Though the battle was won, the war was not. Maximillian remained in power until 1867, when after the US Civil War ended the US pressured France to withdraw from Mexico. However, the defeat of the French army in the battle of Puebla was a source of pride and inspiration for many of Mexican descent living in the western United States, particularly in California. As a matter of fact, this is exactly where the celebration of Cinco de Mayo began. Though celebrated in California since the 1860s, the holiday was largely ignored in Mexico itself, at least outside of Puebla. The celebration grew significantly with the rise of the Chicano movement in California in the 1940s. Its popularity then spread to Latino communities in other US cities in the 50s and 60s, such as Chicago and Houston.

However, the popularity and almost universal recognition of Cinco de Mayo didn’t occur until the 1980s when marketing agencies, primarily for beer companies, saw a way to capitalize on the growing popularity. As evidenced by the majority of the respondents above, that is how most Americans came to know of Cinco de Mayo, led by television commercials for beer, chips and salsa, and whatever else can be sold.

Before you start to worry, be assured that the party will still be here when you arrive. As Kevin from New Jersey replied when asked what Cinco de Mayo was all about, “I thought it was to justify taking a day off of work to drink beer and celebrate the fact it's May 5th.” If you missed the sarcasm, that’s alright. But what day isn’t a good day to drink beer? After all, if you’ve ever been to the restaurants on Medano beach or the bars in downtown Cabo, you already know they don’t need any excuse to justify 2 for 1 drinks or to pour tequila shots directly down your throat straight out of the bottle. So come and join the party!

By Brian Florky

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