Cinco de Mayo in Mexico – hand-stitched costumes, no guacamole

Peñón de los Baños, a neighborhood in the capital, is one of the few places in Mexico to celebrate Cinco de Mayo – for reasons entirely unrelated to Cinco de Mayo.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Residents from the Mexico City neighborhood of Peñón de los Baños reenact the 1862 Battle of Puebla – what Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates. While most Mexicans pay little attention to the holiday, every year here residents – from infants to the elderly – dress in elaborate, hand-stitched costumes of French and Mexican generals, and fighter's from Mexico's fabled Zacapoaxtla battalion.

Cinco de Mayo, which, from the US vantage of happy hour specials and 2-for-1 enchilada platters seems like it must be the biggest day on the Mexican calendar, is usually shrugged off in Mexico as just any other day.

But not in Peñón de los Baños, a working class neighborhood in the shadow of the Mexico City airport, where for decades residents have reenacted the 1862 Battle of Puebla – what Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates – with such fervor and flair that, for them, it actually is the biggest day of the year.

“For most Mexicans it is Independence Day that is most important, many don’t even know what Cinco de Mayo is,” says Gabriela Rodriguez, who strolled with her 1-year-old son Adrian Leonardo, dressed as a Zacapoaxtla fighter, during the annual parade this year. “For me, it is definitely Cinco de Mayo.”

Each year here, residents, from infants to the elderly, dress in elaborate, hand-stitched costumes of French and Mexican generals and fighters from Mexico's fabled Zacapoaxtla battalion. The French carry baguettes on their backs and the Mexicans, in big straw hats, carry baskets of chicken legs and green onions.

They all parade through the neighborhood and then reenact various scenes of the battle that culminated in a victory for Mexico’s outnumbered forces over the invading French in the state of Puebla, east of Mexico City. The day ends with a battle played out in the hills overlooking the neighborhood. There is not a margarita in sight.

The state of Puebla celebrates the day grandly – its reenactment even draws the president – but most Mexicans only pay the vaguest attention to Cinco de Mayo.

So why in this neighborhood? It is not that Peñón de los Baños is necessarily full of history buffs, military enthusiasts, or transplants from Puebla. The tradition began almost by accident.

As resident Ismael Escamilla explains, decades ago there was a division among families – “I do not know why, there are always endless problems that divide neighborhoods,” he says – so one of them came up with the idea of a parade and celebration to unify the residents. Cinco de Mayo was chosen.

“It is something that makes us all proud as Mexicans,” he explains.

Most participants, like Aristeo Olvera, have spent their lives reenacting the Battle of Puebla. He was dressed today as a Mexican soldier, wearing a black army coat decorated with embroidered gold paisley. Over the years he has played all the key figures in the battle – a French soldier, a Zacapoaxtla fighter, even Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza. “We do it to see how it feels to be each," he says.

On a day in which the point is Mexican pride, it might seem a challenge to coax Mexicans into playing their French rivals. But Luis Antonio Martinez, who is acting as Count Dubois de Saligny today, prefers to dress up French.

“The costume is more elegant,” he says, with a smile, in his navy blue army jacket with dangling gold epaulettes.

Scores of decked out residents, one woman on a horse, file past. The deafening sounds of rifles stuffed with paper and cannons punctuate the parade, behind a background of band music and shouts of “French get out!”

Residents here know they are on the fringe, one of the few groups that stop to ponder the day and what it means.

“This is a day we were heroic,” says Mr. Olvera. “I guess others don’t love their homeland as much as we do.”

Sign up for our daily World Editor's Picks newsletter. Our best stories, in your inbox.

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.