"Holiday of Cinco de Mayo is minor event in Mexico"
Posted: May 5, 2010
"Holiday of Cinco de Mayo is minor event in Mexico"
by Oscar Casares
The Houston Chronicle, May 5, 2010
With a brutal drug war still raging in the Mexican border towns of Reynosa and Ciudad Juarez, and now the fear of a strict immigration bill in Arizona that makes it a crime to not carry immigration documents, you might think Mexicans would look forward to something worth celebrating, like Cinco de Mayo. But for most Mexicans today is just another Wednesday, or el miércoles, the third day of the week. If they had to get up this morning for a job they are not particularly fond of, then they might have referred to it as el pinche miércoles! Today is also just a few weeks after Holy Week, the last time those who could afford it may have taken time off from work to celebrate anything. But otherwise, for the average Mexican, regardless of which side of the border they happen to live on, today is just another Wednesday. All of which is worth noting only because hundreds of cities across the United States, including some in Arizona, are about to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
Though many people in the U.S. regard this date as a celebration of Mexico's independence, in truth, Cinco de Mayo marks the Battle of Puebla and the Mexican army's defeat of a much larger and better-equipped French army attempting to conquer its weakened government. The victory was short-lived, as the French took over the country a year later and remained in power for the next three years. The battle itself reportedly lasted only from dawn to early evening on May 5, 1861. Compared to Mexico's fight for independence against the Spanish empire, a struggle that lasted for more than 10 years, or the U.S.-Mexico War, which led to the defeated nation losing two-thirds of its territory — including those areas now known as Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California — the Battle of Puebla was little more than a skirmish in the country's long and bloody history. Today in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo will be commemorated primarily in the state of Puebla and recognized during a small ceremony in the capitol.
The holiday, which has never really been much of one in Mexico, crossed over to this side of the border in the 1950s and 1960s, as civil rights activists were attempting to build harmony between the two countries and cultures. The date gained more attention in the 1980s when marketers, particularly beer companies, saw this as a perfect opportunity to capitalize on the celebratory nature of the holiday. This week Cinco de Mayo will be celebrated with festivals and parades in places like Raleigh, North Carolina; Midvale, Utah; Atlanta, Georgia; Omaha, Nebraska; some with large Mexican or Mexican-American populations but many without.
Truth is the more significant holiday for Mexicans is Dieciséis de Septiembre, the start of Mexico's struggle for independence after almost 300 years of Spanish dominance. In this case, the celebration begins late on September 15, the eve of the actual call for arms. The president of Mexico stands on the balcony of the national palace, gazing out at the hundreds of thousands of his countrymen gathered in the zocalo, and declares Mexico's independence from outside rule.
So why do we celebrate the lesser of the two Mexican holidays? One reason may be that Cinco de Mayo happens to fall closer to the start of the summer season, only a few weeks before Memorial Day; while Dieciséis de Septiembre, clearly more notable of the two holidays, has the misfortune of falling after summer and Labor Day, when everyone has gone back inside.
Of course, if you happen to not speak Spanish, Cinco de Mayo is much easier to pronounce, no matter of how many margaritas are involved. So a facility with the language and how this lends itself to marketing products around the holiday certainly must also play a role.
Just imagine a beer company trying to fit Dieciséis de Septiembre on a beer koozie.
Every year we prefer to celebrate Mexico's history on our terms, whether that history is accurate or only convenient. But then again, isn't the United States' relationship with Mexico all about convenience?
We want the cheap labor of undocumented workers — cheaper construction workers, cheaper maids, cheaper nannies, cheaper day laborers — but in many places like Arizona, they don't actually want these same people in our country. We want the benefits they provide, but we don't want to have to think about the cost of those benefits. We want their labor, but we don't want to have to think about them as anything other than labor. To do so would be to acknowledge them as people, acknowledge that they come with a history worth honoring, and maybe, even acknowledge that we are part of the reason they are now here in this country.
Casares, a native of Brownsville, is the author of Brownsville, a short story collection which was selected by American Library Association as a Notable Book of 2004, and Amigoland, the 2010 Mayor's Book Club selection. He is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at UT Austin, where he teaches creative writing.