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
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,
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
After being defeated, the French regrouped and brought over even
more military, placing Puebla under siege for months, Bruce-Novoa
"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
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 email@example.com.