Friday, May 4, 2012

Cinco de Mayo: Past, Present and Future

Cinco de Mayo celebrations occur in over five hundred cities across the United States but mainly in the Southwest and California where Americans of Mexican descent make up an increasingly larger percentage of the population. Such celebrations are much less popular in Mexico with the exception of the city of Puebla and its environs. In its purest form, the festivities surrounding this important day in Mexican history honor the defeat by the Mexican military of the French troops who had invaded Mexico in the early 1860s to try to carry out Napoleon III’s ambition to establish a strong and permanent presence on the North American mainland—it already had such a presence in the Caribbean. President Benito Juárez had ordered General Ignacio Zaragoza to defend Puebla, a city close to Mexico City, and thereby slow the progress of over 7,000 French soldiers who had set out from Veracruz on Mexico’s east coast to help bring Mexico under French control. Despite having a superior military force, on May 5, 1862, the French were badly outmaneuvered and bloodied by a young Brigadier General, Porfirio Díaz who later ruled Mexico as president for over thirty years. Defeated by 4,000 badly equipped Mexican troops, the French troops retreated, and at least for the time being, Mexico resisted the French imposition of power. This was a great symbolic victory, although a year later 30,000 French troops routed the Mexican army and occupied Mexico City; Napoleon III imposed Emperor Maximilian I as French ruler of Mexico, a regime that lasted only three years.

Although some celebration organizers today have succeeded in linking Cinco de Mayo celebrations with its historical roots, it is fair to say that it has largely lost its original symbolic importance in the United States for several reasons. It is often referred to erroneously as Mexican Independence Day equivalent to the Fourth of July. (Mexico’s true day of independence is the Sixteenth of September that celebrates the defeat of the Spanish by insurgent troops that led eventually to Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821.) Also, in the past thirty years or so, the celebration in many cities has been taken over by sponsoring alcoholic beverage companies which in extreme cases has led to large scale excessive drinking and pubic rowdiness. Mexican and non-Mexican restaurants alike often take advantage of Cinco de Mayo to increase their profits by pushing cheap beer and Tequila. As a result of this unfortunate and cynical marketing strategy on the part of these companies and businesses, Cinco de Mayo is often referred to derisively as “Drinko de Mayo.” Chicano/a cultural critics have also taken these companies to task for perpetuating stereotypes about Mexicans and Mexican Americans. For example, advertising often features super macho males and seductive women.

Despite the commodification of Cinco de Mayo in recent years, this day still offers Mexican Americans an opportunity to celebrate with pride an historic event in Mexican history. It also potentially provides an opportunity for non-Mexican Americans to gain a balanced perspective on the many cultural and other contributions that Mexicans and Mexican Americans have made to this country for almost two hundred years.  

by Charles M. Tatum, Author of Lowriders in Chicano Culture: From Low to Slow to Show

 Charles M. Tatum is professor of Spanish in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He is the editor of the upcoming Encyclopedia of Latino Culture: From Calaveras to Quinceaneras that Greenwood Press will pubslish in the fall of 2013.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Delicious Cinco de Mayo Recipes

As promised yesterday, here are some recipes around which you can build your Cinco de Mayo meal: soups, salads, desserts, and more.

The following recipes are from Cooking with the Movies: Meals on Reels by Anthony F. Chiffolo and Rayner W. Hesse, Jr. (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2010). All rights reserved.

The films upon which these dishes are based are Like Water for Chocolate, What’s Cooking?, and Tortilla Soup.

Sopa de Fideos (Tecate Noodle Soup)

6 c. chicken stock
4 Roma tomatoes, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 onions, chopped
1 red hot chili pepper, seeded and chopped
2 bay leaves
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme
1 tsp. cumin
¼ lb. Mexican fideo (or angel hair pasta/vermicelli)
grated añejo
ripe avocado, diced

In a large pot, bring the stock to a boil. Add the tomatoes, garlic, onions, and chili pepper and bring to a boil again. Reduce the heat to a simmer.
Stir in the spices and cook on a low heat, covered, for 30 minutes.
Break the fideo strands into thirds, and add them to the pot. Cook for 6 minutes on a medium heat. Remove the bay leaves. Spoon out into small bowls. Serve with grated añejo and a slice of avocado.

Yield: 12–15 servings

Ensalada de Nopalitos

7–8 fresh cactus paddles (needles removed)
½ c. olive oil
4 Roma tomatoes, sliced
½ sm. red onion, diced
1 Serrano chili
2 cloves garlic, pressed
¼ c. pine nuts
½ c. yellow squash, diced
3 bunches cilantro, leaves only, finely chopped
½ c. añejo cheese, finely grated

Preheat oven to Broil. Place the cactus paddles in a bowl and coat them on both sides with a bit of olive oil. Spread onto a cookie sheet and place in the broiler to braise, about 7–10 minutes on each side, until the tops of the paddles begin to turn black.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool. When sufficiently cooled, cut into small strips. Transfer to a large bowl, and add the tomatoes and the onion. Cut a Serrano chili into small pieces, removing the stem and seeds. Add to the salad along with the pine nuts, squash, and cilantro.
Pour the vinaigrette (see next) over the salad.
Refrigerate until serving. When serving, sprinkle with añejo cheese, then toss.

Red Wine Vinaigrette
½ c. olive oil
¼ c. red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. mustard
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
Combine all ingredients and whisk well with a fork.

Yield: 8–12 servings

Tortilla Soup

12 Roma tomatoes, quartered
6 cloves garlic, peeled
5 Tbsp. olive oil
1 sweet red onion, finely diced
1 c. carrot, finely diced
1 c. celery, chopped fine
2 tsp. cumin
salt and pepper to taste
8 c. chicken stock
1 15-oz. jar green chilies
¼ c. lime juice
½ c. black beans
¼ lb. tortilla chips
2 chicken breasts, cooked and diced
½ c. cilantro, chopped
1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and diced
½ c. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
crisp tortilla chips

In a blender or food processor, puree the tomatoes and garlic until smooth. Set aside.
In a large pot, heat the olive oil over a low heat. Add the onions, carrot, celery, cumin, salt, and pepper, then cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Mix in the tomato/garlic puree and cook for 10 minutes longer, stirring to ensure that the sauce does not burn.
Add the chicken stock, chilies, lime juice, and black beans to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Stir in the tortilla chips and chicken, then cook for 10 minutes more until the chips soften.
Serve hot with cilantro, avocado, cheese, and extra crisp fried tortilla chips set up as side dishes for folks to add their own garnishes.

Yield: 10–12 servings

Chiles en Nogada (Chilies in Walnut Sauce)

12 poblano chilies
1 sm. onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbsp. olive oil
½ lb. ground pork
1 sm. apple, peeled, cored, and diced
1 peach, peeled, cored, and diced
1 lb. plum tomatoes, diced
1 c. shelled walnuts
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. nutmeg
¼ tsp. cumin
½ tsp. salt
¾ tsp. black pepper
1 Tbsp. white vinegar
4 eggs, separated
½ c. all-purpose flour
½ lb. butter
1 c. sour cream
3 sprigs cilantro, coarsely chopped
seeds of 1 pomegranate

Roast the chilies and remove the skins and seeds. (Do not cut them in half, as they are going to be stuffed.)
Fry the onion and garlic in the olive oil until glossy; add the pork and brown, stirring frequently. Stir in the apple, peach, tomatoes, walnuts, all the spices, and the vinegar, and cook for about 5 minutes. Stuff the chilies with the walnut mixture.
Beat the egg whites until stiff; lightly beat the yolks, then add into the whites. Dredge the chilies in flour and dip in the egg mixture. Fry in butter, turning frequently so that they brown evenly. Drain.
Serve each with a bit of sour cream, garnished with cilantro and pomegranate seeds.

Yield: 12 servings

Mole de Guajolote con Almendra y Ajonjolí (Turkey Mole with Almonds and Sesame Seeds)

1 lg. turkey breast
1 lg. onion, peeled and halved
½ lb. butter, melted
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. black pepper
1 c. apple cider or Calvados brandy
4 plum tomatoes, chopped
12 tomatillos
5 mulato chili peppers
5 pasilla chili peppers
3 chipotles
½ avocado, mashed
1 banana, mashed
8 c. chicken stock
½ c. seedless raisins
½ c. sesame seeds
3 Tbsp. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 sm. onions, chopped
1 hard roll
⅛ c. pumpkin seeds
¼ c. slivered almonds
¼ c. walnuts
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. anise extract
1 Tbsp. water
1 cinnamon stick
½ c. brown sugar
2 tsp. Balsamic vinegar
2 sq. bitter Baker’s chocolate

Preheat oven to 350°F. Place turkey, breast-side up, in a large baking pan. Stuff the onion inside the turkey cavity. Pour the melted butter over the bird, and sprinkle the salt and pepper over it. Surround the breast with apple cider (or brandy, whichever one is using). Bake, uncovered, for 2 ½ –3 hours, basting occasionally.
While the turkey is cooking, puree the tomatoes, tomatillos, chili peppers, avocado, and banana; place the mixture in a large pan, and add the chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer until it is reduced to about half the liquid content. Remove from the heat and set aside. Stir in the raisins.
In a large skillet, dry roast the sesame seeds; when finished, reserve them for use later.
Add the olive oil to the pan, and fry the garlic and onions until lightly browned; crumble the hard roll into the mix, stir, and remove from the heat. Set aside.
In a separate pan, fry the pumpkin seeds and nuts with the chili powder, allspice, and cloves until well heated, then add the extract and 1 tablespoon of water until mixed thoroughly. Steal ½ cup of the turkey drippings from the oven and add it to the frying pan, whisking the mixture into a kind of light gravy.
In a large pot, combine the stock, garlic, onion, bread, and all the gravy ingredients. Add the cinnamon stick, brown sugar, and vinegar. Allow the sauce to thicken, stirring occasionally so that it does not burn (about 20 minutes).
Grate the chocolate into the sauce, and allow it to melt, floating on top of the sauce. Cover until one is ready to present the turkey.
Pour the sauce over the turkey, sprinkle with sesame seeds, and serve.

Yield: 12–15 servings


1 c. sugar
8 egg yolks
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1 12-fluid-oz. can evaporated milk
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
edible flowers

Preheat oven to 350°F.
Melt the sugar over medium heat until caramel colored. Pour into a 9" round glass baking dish, coating the bottom and sides.
In a large bowl, beat the yolks until light yellow in color. Add the condensed and evaporated milks and the vanilla, and beat until very smooth. Pour mixture into the baking dish. Set inside a larger pan; add water so that it comes up as much as possible around the edges of the flan pan.
Bake for 50 – 60 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely. Refrigerate overnight.
To serve, invert the flan onto a plate with high sides. Surround with edible flowers for decoration.

Yield: 8 servings

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cinco de Mayo

Adapted from Louis M. Holscher, Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days, edited by Len Travers.

Americans often confuse Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May, with Mexico's Independence Day, which is celebrated on September 16. Cinco de Mayo commemorates Gen. Ignacio Zaragosa's victory on May 5, 1862, over the French army at Puebla, Mexico.

Although the Battle of Puebla was rendered insignificant by later French victories, it infused the Mexican people with pride and patriotism it had rarely enjoyed, especially after the defeat by the United States in the Mexican-American War. Thus, after many tragedies and setbacks, at the Battle at Puebla the Mexican people were able to rally against the French invasion and be justly proud of being Mexican. Yo soy Mexicano ("I am Mexican") became a positive statement, a symbol of Mexican unity, and a source of pride. For Mexicans, Cinco de Mayo has come to represent national sovereignty and the right of self-determination. There is also an ethnic dimension; the ability of an indigenous people to defend themselves from military and cultural takeover and preserve their traditions. The later defeat of the French also symbolized an end to foreign intervention, the last time a large-scale European army would invade the Americas. Hence, it is a day of joyous affirmation of political and cultural identity.

Historical Background

The history of Cinco de Mayo is one of the major David and Goliath stories in North America. A poorly trained and organized Mexican army defeated a highly trained and well-organized French army. During the 1850s, the decade after the Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a financially unstable Mexico experienced a severe economic crisis. In 1855, Benito Juarez became the Minister of Justice and issued a series of reforms that limited the power of the Catholic Church. In 1857, the progressives led by Juarez adopted a new constitution for Mexico in hopes of dealing with the unstable political and financial situation; conservatives vigorously opposed it. These events lead to civil war that brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy. In response to the financial disaster Juarez suspended foreign debt payments for a two-year period. European banks rejected the moratorium on repayment, and Spanish, British, and French forces seized the gulf coast city of Veracruz. The Mexican government agreed to resume payments, and the Spanish and British forces withdrew. Much of the debt was owed to France, and Napoleon III of France used the conflict as an excuse to expand French influence in Mexico and establish a French Catholic monarchy in Mexico City. Napoleon III was led to believe by Mexican conservatives that the French would be seen as liberators, and that Mexicans would welcome the stability of a European-styled government.

A French army of 6,000 men was sent to Veracruz and marched overland toward Mexico City. The French decided to attack the city of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The Mexican forces under the leadership of Gen. Ignacio Zaragosa numbered about 5,000 troops and were not as well armed as the French forces. The Mexican troops were mostly indigenous peasants and were poorly trained and equipped; for example, they included many state militiamen who lacked uniforms and were sometimes armed only with machetes. At the time, the French army was considered one of the best in the world and did not expect much resistance. In addition, the United States was embroiled in its Civil War and thus was thought unlikely to interfere in French plans to control Mexico. Three times the French army attacked the fortified positions surrounding Puebla and was repulsed all three times. After the third assault Gen. Zaragosa ordered his cavalry to attack the retreating French army; only the intervention of a thunderstorm ended the fighting, and the defeated French withdrew. Leading the attack on Gen. Zaragosa's right flank was young Porfirio Diaz, a future leader of Mexico. Fewer than 100 Mexican soldiers were killed, while the French losses numbered between 460 and 1,000. Despite its tremendous advantages, an army of one of the most powerful nations in the world was defeated by the smaller, less experienced, and outgunned Mexican army.

While news of the victory inspired many in Mexico, Napoleon III answered with more troops, and Puebla fell to the French in May 1863. They soon entered Mexico City, and the Juarez government was forced to flee. The majority of Mexicans continued to support Juarez and used guerilla tactics to harass the French and Mexican Imperial forces. In March 1867, nearly four years later, the French left, tired of their experiment in Mexico. Forces loyal to Juarez soon defeated the Mexican Imperial army, and Archduke Maximillian of Austria, who had accepted the crown of Mexico from Napoleon III, was captured and executed. President Juarez returned to power and triumphantly entered Mexico City to take over control of the government.

Celebrations—Mexico and the United States

Cinco de Mayo is a national holiday in Mexico and was first celebrated under French rule. The name of the city, Puebla, was even changed to Puebla de Zaragosa. However, it is not celebrated in Mexico to the same extent that it is by Mexican Americans in the United States, mainly because in Mexico the 16th of September (Independence Day) is considered the more important holiday. In Mexico it is more of a regional holiday and is celebrated most vigorously in the state of Puebla, especially in its capital city of the same name. Although there are celebrations nationwide, they are all on a lesser scale than in Puebla. In the United States, Cinco de Mayo celebrations range from the three-day extravaganza on Olvera Street and in other parts of downtown Los Angeles, to small events sponsored by schools, community organizations, and commercial businesses. It is celebrated throughout the United States, wherever there are communities of people of Mexican ancestry, including the Southwest, southern California, and parts of the Northwest, Midwest, Northeast, and the South. Particularly well known is the celebration in Los Angeles on the streets near City Hall. Common festivities include parades, mariachi and other kinds of Mexican music, dancing, meals featuring Mexican food, sports events, beauty contests, and more. Piñatas are also common at Cinco de Mayo events. Thus, it is a time to celebrate being of Mexican ancestry, and to share with community folks and others Mexican and Mexican American culture. Many of the large events in the United States have parades, car shows, music, and food as part of the festivities.

As in Mexico, commercial interests in the United States have increasingly promoted Cinco de Mayo in order to sell food, beverages, and a variety of other products. Some even view it as a Mexican St. Patrick's Day—basically a day to drink beer and other alcoholic beverages. However, there are also many public and private noncommercial Cinco de Mayo celebrations throughout the United States, some very small and some quite large. Many community activists accuse the major beer companies of “hijacking” Cinco de Mayo and turning it into an excuse to sell beer and tequila. Marketing the holiday to both Mexican Americans and other Americans, millions of dollars are spent each year to promote Cinco de Mayo as a drinking holiday, oftentimes by Mexican breweries, blurring its significance.

In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is seen as a day to celebrate Mexican American heritage more than a day to commemorate a battle victory. Besides being an excuse to party for some people, events and celebrations on this day educate the American people about Mexican American culture and history. It is a day for people of Mexican ancestry to maintain and reaffirm their roots; a day to celebrate their ethnic and cultural traditions. Mexican Americans celebrate the holiday as an appreciation of its cultural significance—victory in the face of great odds and the patriotism it generated—more than its historical significance. It is and can be used as a learning experience to close the cultural gap between Mexican Americans and other ethnic groups. Other reasons why Cinco de Mayo is widely celebrated in the United States include the fact that Gen. Zaragosa, the leader of the Battle of Puebla, was born in Texas while it was still part of Mexico; thus for many he is the first Chicano hero. In the United States, non-Mexican American candidates often attempt to show their knowledge of people of Mexican ancestry and their commitment to community concerns by participating in Cinco de Mayo events. For example, presidential candidate John Kerry spoke in East Los Angeles on May 5, 2005, on issues important to the Mexican American community, and George W. Bush responded that as a former governor of Texas he had long been committed to helping Mexican Americans. It was not by accident that John Kerry's national co-chair for his election campaign was Antonio Villaraigosa, a Los Angeles city councilman elected mayor of Los Angeles in 2005.

Look for tomorrow's post for some delicious recipes to enhance your Cinco de Mayo celebration!