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.
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.