When I tell people that my family will be in México during Cinco de Mayo, the response I hear typically indicates speculation that we will be a part of a big Mexican party. Others wonder if it is appropriate to take the kids to such a celebration that is most certainly overflowing with tequila, margaritas and cerveza. I remind them that we took our six month-old and two year-old to Oktoberfest in 2011 and it was a lot of fun for all of us. Whoever said you couldn’t breastfeed in a “bier” tent?
The fact of the matter is that Cinco de Mayo is not actually an important holiday in México. It is not the Mexican Independence Day from Spain (which is September 16). You are going to be shocked when I tell you what Cinco de Mayo celebrates: the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Crazy right? It has nothing to do with the Spanish or winning a war…it was simply one battle against the French of all people. Now this deserves a bit more explanation because most of our history books did not cover this.
After the American-Mexican revolution of 1846-8, the Mexican Civil War of 1858 and the Reform Wars of 1860, the Mexican Territory was broke. The President, Benito Juárez, issued a moratorium on paying foreign debt for two years which made Spain, France and Britain unhappy enough to send naval ships to México’s eastern port city of Veracruz. Spain and Britain worked it out with the Mexican Government and went home but France decided to stick around and occupy an area of México around Veracruz. This forced the Mexican army to retreat to an area around México City.
On May 5th, near the town of Puebla, the Mexicans were outnumbered almost two to one against a much better equipped French army but somehow came out with the ‘W’. The French later went on to take México City and instill their own leader in the country until the US finished up their own Civil War and came help their southern neighbors expel the European invaders for the last time.
Cinco de Mayo is noteworthy because it was a symbol of unity and pride for the Mexican people as well as an ability to overcome the odds. The day continues to be celebrated in Puebla, México but the rest of the country saves their celebrating for Catholic holidays and Día de Independencía on September 16th.
The United States began celebrating the day in a few Latin communities and then like any good holiday in America, it became commercialized. The corporations figured out they could use it to sell more Mexican beverages, food and music and now the holiday is ubiquitous across the United States and hardly celebrated in México at all.
During our trip, we will be staying in a resort in México that will have other American tourists who will likely be expecting a Cinco de Mayo celebration. For that reason, I expect there to be a celebration to satisfy the guests. I find it ironic that if Americans weren’t going to be in México there would likely be no celebration at all. But if you happen to find yourself in México on September 16th, you will witness one heck of a party all over the country.