Making Sense Out of Cinco de Mayo

On May first, I explained to a lawyer in the U.S. that the day was a holiday in these parts.

“Oh, yes, Cinco de Mayo,” he replied, not having the first clue.

He just didn’t understand that not only was the first day of May not the fifth day of May, like many folks, he thought Cinco de Mayo was as big a celebration in Mexico as it was in El Otro Lado.

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo has about the same status as St. Patrick’s Day does in Ireland. Just another day, and not a federal holiday.

In 1862, on the fifth day of May, we Mexicans tromped the well-armed French army at the Batalla de Puebla, teaching them a lesson. A year later, the French re-fortified, made their way to Mexico City, and put Maximilian in charge as the monarch. Cinco de Mayo is a point of pride, harkening that “Can do” spirit, but it’s not a major holiday in these parts.

Estadounidenses tend to think that Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican Independence Day, not understanding that Dia de la Independencia is celebrated in September, honoring events which took place half a century before that battle in Puebla.

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. is nothing new. The first celebration took place a year later in California. Some might say that the U.S. had good reason to celebrate, given that the French would definitely have helped out the Confederacy had it conquered Mexico. The downside would be that we’d all likely have to learn to speak French.

Donald R. Miles connects all the dots in Cinco de Mayo: What is Everybody Celebrating?, explaining what happened before and after that battle.

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