Today is Cinco de Mayo, a day when many Americans, but especially those of Mexican descent, get to experience some of the trappings of Mexican culture such as its music, dance, crafts, and of course its food and drink. Often mistakenly thought to be Mexico's Independence Day (which is September 16th), Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates the victory of the Mexican army over Napoleon III's French expeditionary forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862. While the battle was a boost to the pride and patriotism of the Mexican people, the French eventually regrouped and a little over a year later they went on to defeat the Mexican army at the Second Battle of Puebla. Pushing onward, French forces conquered Mexico City, drove the Juárez government into exile and installed Archduke Maximilian of Austria as the Emperor of Mexico.
To this day, the battle is commemorated on May 5th in the city of Puebla where the locals celebrate the day with parades, festivals, and even a reenactment of the battle. However, outside of Puebla, Mexico City, and Tijuana the holiday is really not celebrated throughout the rest of Mexico. But given the history and significance of the date of “Cinco de Mayo” this is to be expected. After all, people outside of Texas typically don’t commemorate the battle of the Alamo or non-residents of my home state of Minnesota generally don’t know of or go see the annual reenactment of the 1876 Northfield bank robbery by the James-Younger gang.
In the United States though, the day is more popular than it is in Mexico. There are huge celebrations in major cities across the nation such as Milwaukee, Chicago, San Antonio, and the Twin Cities (Saint Paul-Minneapolis) here in Minnesota. The largest and oldest Mexican-American community resides in the West Side and District del Sol neighborhoods of Saint Paul, where Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with a huge parade and a three-day festival.
While I did not grow up on the West Side or the District del Sol, much of my extended family did. Some of them were prominent members in the local business community and the Catholic church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, where I attended as a youth. Thus the annual celebration of Cinco de Mayo played a prominent role in my upbringing, but with one key difference that I noticed as grew older.
Watching the Parade Versus Being in It
To the people of the West Side and the District del Sol, especially during the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960’s and 70’s, Cinco de Mayo was not just a celebration of the trappings of Mexican culture, but of what they perceived as Mexican culture itself. Just like every other culture and ethnicity that has come to America, whether from Europe, Asia, Africa, or Latin America, the residents of Saint Paul of Mexican descent were trying to preserve their distinct traditions and cultural identity in a world they often saw as hostile to them.
And let’s be honest, this sentiment is not without reason, as every wave of immigrants that have come to America has had to overcome a perennial and often virulent nativist prejudice against foreigners. I cannot tell you how man times I used to be asked “Where are you from?” or “Do you speak English?” when I was in growing up. However, I can also remember people telling Polack jokes, or making comments about Irish people and drinking, or warning me that Hmong people didn’t know how to use running water or would eat your dog, or that all Somalis drive cabs. For better and yes worse, this is one of those nagging quirks about America, but which is not unique to us, and in fact can be much much worse in other countries around the world.
And yet, somehow all of those cultures managed to brush off the abuse and went on to fulfill America’s motto of E Pluribus Unum, whereby the nation has taken in a multitude of cultures and ethnicities from all over the world, and in time made them into her own. At least, as someone who lived in a kind of Mexican diaspora away from the West Side or the District del Sol, as someone who watched the parade as opposed to being in it, that’s the way I eventually came to see it.
For when it came to celebrating Cinco de Mayo, as I watched the parade and saw the military veterans, beauty pageant winners, the high school marching bands, or when I enjoyed the local artists, musicians, the Jarabe Tapatío dancers and the food vendors, I (apparently) saw something different than the local residents. I saw proof positive that despite all of the discrimination Mexican-Americans had endured, they (and not some ethnic posing senator) are the ones who persisted in their own “pursuit of happiness” and found their place in American society.
Unfortunately, this reality often became a point of contention with my family and the local residents, who believed I was turning my back on my Mexican heritage. This is yet another perennial sentiment found in any immigrant community that has come to America, especially by the third generation (like myself). However, as I mentioned above, the locals were celebrating what they perceived as their Mexican culture and traditions. The fact is they were very selective about which aspects of Mexican culture they praised and those were usually ones that were seen through an overly-romantic cultural and historical lens of an idealistic past.
As I would point out on more than one occasion, having the ability to pick and choose which aspects of Mexican culture they wanted to praise and which ones they could do without, proved that they were true Americans (I mean aside from being born here) and why America was so exceptional. That despite all of the hardships and discrimination they have endured (again not unique to Mexicans), they now have the freedom and prosperity to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in a way that was no longer bound by the extremely race and class stratified culture that persists in Mexico to this day. I mean seriously, you're just not going to see the kind of classic cars and hydraulic-lowriders in Cinco de Mayo parades in Mexico that you will see here in the States.
On a personal note, my own father (who was no conservative when he was alive) attested to this when he started a side-hustle selling Mexican knick-knacks and told me of the difference between operating in America and sellling at festivals in Mexico. Specifically the notion of a “vendor’s licesne”, which here in the states meant paying a nominal fee to the city or state and posting it on your booth, whereas in Mexico it meant having plenty of cash or merchandise on hand to pay off local police.
A Truly American Holiday
This when it comes to Cinco de Mayo, a holiday that is more popular in America that it is in its country of origin, it is not entirely accurate to call it a celebration of Mexican-American culture. It is a holiday that celebrates Americanized Mexican culture and traditions. Something that is no different than all the other cultures and ethnicities that make up America celebrating their own cultural holidays. Whether it is St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, Polish festivals that occur in the U.S. around Labor Day, the Hmong New Year, or even the entirely created St. Urho’s Day by Americans of Finish descent, all of them have been grafted onto America’s cultural tree and are celebrated in ways that generally differ from their country of origin.
And make no mistakes, America has its own distinct culture. Certainly we are a creedal nation, one shaped by our founding documents, but keep in mind those documents and our founding fathers were in turn shaped by something else. As David Hacket Fischer describes in his massive book Albion's Seed, the original thirteen colonies were settled by four distinct groups of people from the British Isles. They brought with them traditions and beliefs that stretched backed thousands of years, and which provided the source code (so to speak) for an America which (according to Fischer) “for two centuries has remained stubbornly democratic in its politics, capitalist its economy, libertarian in its laws and individualistic in its society and pluralistic in its culture."
This is why Cinco de Mayo can rightly be called a truly American holiday. And while it is appropriate to acknowledge the less than flattering side of America’s treatment of people Mexican descent, it should not overshadow the unique, the wonderful, and the beautiful contributions they have made to America. It is a day to celebrate how a culture that is a mixture of Spanish and Indio cultures that go back more than half a millennia, can rightly be called by Americans as one of their own.
So feliz Cinco de Mayo y Dios Bendiga América!
Photo Credit- cincodemayosaintpaul.com