Bah humbug, say Mexicans about Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is hardly recognized in Mexico. Here most people go without seeing a parade, eating guacamole, or fully knowing why today celebrates the Battle of Puebla.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Beth Romero, left, and a member of the Maru Montero Dance Company performs at the Sylvan Theater near the Washington Monument during the 18th Annual National Cinco de Mayo Festival in Washington Sunday.
Joel Merino/AP
Cinco de Mayo: Mexico's President Felipe Calderon stands at the Monument to Zaragoza that commemorates the Battle of Puebla, where Mexico defeated Napoleon's army in 1862, in Puebla, Mexico, Wednesday.

Susana Osneya woke up today and, like any other day, she took her dog Sabrina for a walk in the park in Mexico City. She is not attending any parades, not cooking any special meals, and not attending any holiday activities with her grandchildren.

And she's certainly not drinking any margaritas.

But wait a second. It is Cinco de Mayo, the day that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans go out in droves in the US to celebrate, with American cities commemorating the day and Mexican restaurants offering special margarita deals. Isn't May 5 the biggest day on Mexico's national holiday calendar?

“Really, it is just like any other day here,” Ms. Osneya says, walking off with her dog.

IN PICTURES: Cinco de Mayo

Despite popular misconception in the US, today is not Mexico's Independence Day. May 5 instead marks the anniversary of the 1862 Battle of Puebla when the Mexican Army defeated the French. Compared to Sept. 16, the day Mexico commemorates its independence, or Easter week, or even upcoming Mother's Day, Cinco de Mayo is practically a non-event.

Turning nothing into something

“It has been vastly commercialized on the [US] side of the border,” says Oscar Casares, who authored the novel “Amigoland” and teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin. “They created this mythology of what it means to Mexicans when it is really a minor [holiday]. It is acknowledged but it certainly is not celebrated.”

Mr. Casares says the holiday found its way to the US in the 1950s and 60s, during the civil rights movement when Hispanic activists were attempting to foster goodwill between both nations and cultures. It was in the 1980s that marketers saw the holiday as a way to make a buck.

In Mexico, meanwhile, work goes on as normal, banks operate, and stores are open.

Not that the holiday is entirely ignored. Mexican President Felipe Calderon is in the state of Puebla today, the site of the battle, to commemorate the event. Puebla is also planning a military parade and a recreation of the battle. But it's not an event that most Mexicans would travel far to see.

Bah humbug, say Mexicans

“It is part of the history of our country,” says taxi driver Noel Perez in Mexico City, “but it is not relevant. The truth is we do not even know what it is we are celebrating. I do not even know why the French invaded Mexico.”

After saying this, Mr. Perez and fellow taxi driver Luis Castaneda launch into a debate on the details of history of the day, but they come to no agreement.

What they can agree on is that a holiday barely noticed in Mexico City has morphed into essentially “Mexican pride” day in the US, the same way that St. Patrick´s Day is celebrated. Like drinking Guinness on March 17, Americans today with no ties to Mexico will find a reason to eat tortilla chips and guacamole, many without being able to locate Puebla on a map.

Mr. Castaneda says he welcomes his compatriots in 'El Norte' s celebrating Mexican culture and history today.

But he says he's not feeling very patriotic, with Mexico's economy struggling and violence wracking the country.

“There is little to celebrate about Mexico today,” he says. “Now Mother´s Day, that is a different story. That is celebrating our family.”


of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.