Keep off those Cinco de Mayo myths

LOLITA HARPER

What is Cinco de Mayo really? Sure it literally translates to "the

fifth of May" and traditionally transforms mild-mannered Mexicans,

and their compadres, into party animals -- or so it would seem.

So what is the big deal behind the holiday besides all-you-can-eat

nacho bars and two-for-one cervezas at the neighborhood drinking

hole?

Cinco de Mayo is a celebration commemorating the victory of

General Ignacio Zaragoza's Mexican troops, fighting with farm tools

as weapons, over the French Army, which had not suffered a defeat in

50 years and was considered to be the premiere army in the world.

It is not the Mexican Independence Day, as is the common

misconception. That was Sept. 16, 1821, the day the Mexicans won

their independence from Spain -- a battle that took place some 40

years before the famed day on May 5, 1862 just outside of Puebla,

Mexico.

That battle did not mark the end of anything, said Juan

Bruce-Novoa, a UC Irvine professor of Chicano literature and film,

but the beginning of a longer, more arduous battle to keep the French

from taking over their country.

The French came to Mexico to collect debts along with Spain and

Great Britain, but unlike the latter two countries, France was

unwilling to make a deal and continued to advance its military

presence toward Mexico City. That is when they met Zaragoza and his

2,000 men.

After being defeated, the French regrouped and brought over even

more military, placing Puebla under siege for months, Bruce-Novoa

said.

"My grandfather was in that city and he remembers not having

anything to eat," the professor said.

When news spread of the victorious battle, Californians were the

first to celebrate, Bruce-Novoa said, not only because they were

proud of their former paisanos but because the battle was seen in a

larger sense as the first American victory over the Europeans.

(American, in this sense, means native Americans -- those who were

here before people came over from Europe).

"In California it was a tradition that began immediately and in

Mexico it is still not a national holiday," Bruce-Novoa said.

It may not be a national holiday here but you better believe

people will be celebrating. Pick a bar, any bar, and you will most

likely find some sort of drink specials tonight. Bruce-Novoa said

that's a good sign and a bad sign.

"When Cinco de Mayo becomes nationally visible it brings attention

to culture but also incorporated with that are things you are not

sure are positive," he said. "The holiday becomes incorporated in all

ways with retailers using it for a reason to have a sale and bars

make a buck. But if you can sell more shirts, or lingerie, or more

beer, then why not?"

(That was a bit of sarcasm there, folks.)

At Avila's El Ranchito, they are hosting a big bash complete with

a DJ, raffle, prizes, commemorative T-shirts and tequila. They were

already gearing up for the party Tuesday when I caught up with

general manager Louie Baez.

I asked Baez what Cinco de Mayo meant to him and he said bluntly,

"bragging rights." Sure they will have drink specials and other

commercialized party favors, but it's mainly a big celebration of

culture, to which everyone is invited.

"We want the community to come celebrate," Baez said. "We want to

combine the Mexicans and everyone else and ask them to join us in the

celebration of something important to us."

Gerarro Barragan, general manager at La Espiga de Oro bakery on

19th Street, agreed and said he will take a more mellow approach with

an authentic dinner in his own home.

"We celebrate the fact that our indigenous people won that

battle," Barragan said.

Although it was not the final victory, it proved that the Mexican

resolve is strong and that the people's will is unbending, even in

the face of extraordinary odds, he said. Perhaps that's why it's so

widely embraced.

Not Mexican? Looking for a good way to connect personally to the

celebration? Check out the article, "Cinco de Mayo, the Real Story,"

by John Sheppler.

The French ultimately withdrew from Mexico, but not until after

the end of the Civil War, when the United States was no longer a

divided power, and President Lincoln ordered the French to get out,

Sheppler wrote. He contends that the French were interested not only

in claiming land in Mexico but helping the Confederate soldiers in

the Civil War win their battle to divide this nation, thus making

America not so threatening to European countries.

"[Mexican President Benito Juarez's] loyalist troops did manage to

keep the French at bay long enough to prevent them from supporting

the Confederate states in the U.S. Civil War," Sheppler wrote. "With

the North and South reunited, Lincoln ordered the French out of

Mexico and sent a military force to the Texas/Mexican border under

General Phil Sheridan."

So there, it's a win-win for everyone. Cheers.

* LOLITA HARPER is the Forum editor. She also writes columns

Wednesdays and Fridays. She may be reached at (949) 574-4275 or by

e-mail at lolita.harper@latimes.com.

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