Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Cinco de Mayo – A uniquely American holiday, courtesy of… México!

Outside of areas with large Mexican populations, Cinco de Mayo as a holiday is largely ignored.  Allow me to suggest that this perhaps is a mistake.  In schools, certainly, the history of this critically important day provides a valuable historical lesson, not just about our neighbor to the south, but about the intangibles that once defined us as a nation.

When asked what Cinco de Mayo is, most people – even, I learned after many years of teaching in California schools, many people of Mexican extraction – automatically report, erroneously, that it is Mexican Independence Day.  (That would be September 16, sorry.)  It is always sad when a people is disconnected from its heritage to such an extent that no one can even recall the significant formative moments in the formation of that culture’s psyche; can you imagine an American calling him- or her-self a “patriot,” but not knowing why there were 13 stripes on the flag, or not knowing why we recognize certain presidents’ birthdays, or what “the shot heard ‘round the world” was? 

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is acknowledged, but not celebrated as a national day with any real fervor on a national scale; official recognition of the day varies regionally, with individual states (yes, Mexico has states) deciding how the day is to be commemorated, if at all.  The occasion is celebrated with much more vehemence, pomp, circumstance and ornamentation in parts of the United States – those with a significant Mexican population, understandably – than in Mexico itself.  This makes intuitive sense, perhaps; people separated from their cultural center, if they have any desire to commemorate or celebrate their heritage and cultural identity, or any drive to maintain the same, will strive wherever possible to forge connections through ritual.  Islands of Mexicanity within the borders of the United States can therefore engage in these celebrations and feel a closer connection to their homeland, their distance, like absence, having ostensibly made the heart grow fonder. 

However, many American celebrations of Cinco de Mayo have degenerated into generic and heavily commercialized cultural celebrations; Cinco de Mayo is, in many American communities in the West and Southwest, merely an undifferentiated outpouring of nostalgia for a missed fatherland, a contrived concatenation of music, color, dance and food, with little – if any – acknowledgment (or even understanding) of the historical occasion which the day is meant to commemorate.  I recall that once a Mexican-American administrator in a school at which I spent an early part of my full-time teaching career, in an attempt to voice an elegant encomium to Mexico over the loudspeaker for Cinco de Mayo, informed the student body, perhaps a quarter of whom were Chicanos, that “today [was] the day we celebrate the Mexican declaration of independence.”  ¡Carajo, hombre!

That is a shame, because despite the occasional flare-ups of grotesque and arbitrary anti-Mexican sentiment extant in many sectors of the current American political landscape, Cinco de Mayo is, above all things, very much a holiday in the American spirit, and a significant movement in a critical historical period in our hemisphere worth getting to know.

The period between the 1760s and the 1860s was a momentous era in Western history. Thanks in no small part to Schoolhouse Rock, everybody knows the phrase “taxation without representation,” and has a vague idea that the American colonists were spurred on by outrage to fight for independence.  Anybody who cares to dig a little deeper quickly gets past the easy potential misconception that the outrage the colonists felt was simply petty, petulant and trite, (a la Occupy Wall Street – don’t get me started on that; it’s off-topic, just move along… ), like a child protesting his “unfair” bedtime and throwing a fit; in fact, the Revolution and subsequent Declaration of Independence (I’ll pause for a moment while you go look it up – yes, the war started before the Declaration was penned) were the inevitable end product of a principled line of thinking that had its seeds in the Enlightenment.  But the story does not end with the surrender of Cornwallis.

Proper historians may cringe at the truncated treatment I am about to give a rather complex series of political upheavals, but this plays better from 30,000 feet, so broad strokes only for a while.
The French Revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1791, was directly influenced by the American Revolution, and the French National Constituent Assembly’s The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen paid generous homage to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  One wonders if the last thing that went through Louis XVI’s head in 1793, besides a guillotine blade, was the idea that maybe signing the Treaty of Alliance with the American colonies in 1778 wasn’t such a hot idea after all.  The French Revolution stimulated the people of Haiti, then a French colony, to revolt, and for thirteen years, war raged in that tiny country.
Then, a few short years later, nearby Mexico caught the revolution bug but good, as Napoleonic War-era France distracted Spain for long enough to disrupt their attentiveness to their own colonies, giving Mexico an opening to follow Haiti’s lead, which they did.  This chain reaction of wars of independence cascaded down the spine of Mesoamerica into the South American continent, and by mid-century, 1849, to be precise, almost all of the modern-day Spanish-speaking nations had declared, fought for, and won their independence from Spain. 

Mexico, as a newly independent nation, had what one might understatedly call growing pains.  An almost constant state of civil war existed over the three-and-a-half decades between 1821 and 1857, with a shocking series of revolving-door presidencies (Santa Anna alone was named President some ten or eleven separate times) while that nation saw not one but three separate, distinct national constitutions implemented.  The anti-theocracy capitalist reformer Benito Juárez played an important role in the creation of Mexico’s 1857 Constitution, a document which set forth guidelines that included freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, a reaffirmation of the ban on slavery [Note/edit: Thanks to the poster at /r/mexico in reddit who alerted me to the fact that Mexico had banned slavery actually in 1829], the right to bear arms, and the familiar notion of “the consent of the governed,” captured in the Constitution’s Article 39:
Article 39, The Mexican Constitution of 1857:

La soberanía nacional reside esencial y originariamente en el pueblo. … El pueblo tiene en todo tiempo el inalienable derecho de alterar[o] modificar la forma de su gobierno. 
“[Our] national sovereignty resides in and originates with the People. … The People at all times have the inviolable right to alter or modify the form of their government.”   
Compare to the American Declaration of Independence:
“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…”
Juárez became Mexico’s next president, in 1858.  He borrowed funds heavily from European powers – England, France, Spain (yes, Spain) – to rebuild his war-torn country, but after a short few years, his creditors came calling, led by an extraordinarily zealous Napoleon III of France, who in response to Juárez’s non-repayment, invaded Mexico in 1861, driving Juárez into exile, and succeeded in installing Hapsburg stooge and eventual fall guy Maximilian I as the puppet Emperor of Mexico in 1864.

The Mexican people did not go gentle into that good night, however.  While the elite French forces generally made short work of whatever Mexican resistance stood in its way, there was one battle, at the village of Puebla on May 5, 1862, that, while not a key or decisive battle in the larger conflict, came to become the best known (at least by name) battle on Mexican soil – the Battle of the Alamo was technically fought in the Republic of Texas – in that nation’s history. Reports vary on the precise troop strength of the opposing armies: on the Mexican side, estimates run as low as 1,500 and as high as 4,500; on the French side, estimates are fairly consistent at around 6,000, though I have read some as high as 8,000.  What is certain is that the Mexican fighting force was perhaps one step up from rabble, while the French forces were arguably among the most formidable, well-trained, and well-outfitted in the world.  David, however, defeated Goliath, sending the French temporarily into retreat, the number of their casualties three to four times that of the stalwart Mexican defenders.

True, the French did come back, this time with an army several times larger, and they completed their national conquest by 1864. But it did not take.  By 1867, Napoleon III had withdrawn both his interest in Mexican involvement and his troops, leaving Maximilian without a lifeline.  Maximilian was overthrown and captured in 1867, where a repatriated Benito Juárez sentenced him to death by firing squad. 

In commemoration of the Battle of Puebla, which despite its ultimate futility showed the rest of the world a nation of unexpected guts and grit, and provided an emotional flashpoint – like the Alamo, the Spartans at Thermopylae, or the defeat of the Gunpowder Treason – to kindle a resurgent sense of national pride, Juárez declared May 5th a day of national celebration.  It never, however, really became an official federal holiday in Mexico:
“Battle of Puebla is not a general public holiday, as per the "artículo 74 de la Ley Federal del Trabajo", but is included as a public sector holiday (Las dependencias y entidades de la Administración Pública Federal, cuyas relaciones de trabajo se rijan por el Apartado B del artículo 123 Constitucional) in the separate "Decreto por el que se reforma el Artículo Segundo del Decreto por el que se establece el Calendario Oficial"
However, the symbolism of the strength showed by an isolated and outnumbered band of ragtag underdogs surrounded by adverse hostility became a go-to font of patriotic pride for displaced Mexicans within U.S. borders.  Non-Mexican Americans would do well to acknowledge this day as of equal significance to America’s own Declaration of Independence, for while the Mexico of the 20th and 21st centuries did/does not appear to have held up the glorious promise of its inspiring foundational period (for that matter, The U.S. seems to have betrayed its legacy in a number of ways as well, but that too is a topic for another day, another time, another blog), the day itself, and the battle it commemorates, are sterling examples of the spirit that once made America great. This is something that students – all Americans – need to understand.  Let Cinco de Mayo be celebrated in our classrooms nationwide.

Pride is not a sin.

Is it appropriate to recognize a non-U.S. holiday in the U.S.?  Does it set us down a slippery slope?  I dunno, I’m just A.S.K.ing… 

                      [Note: Read the follow up to this post here.]


  1. " It is always sad when a people is disconnected from its heritage to such an extent that no one can even recall the significant formative moments in the formation of that culture’s psyche; can you imagine an American calling him- or her-self a “patriot,” but not knowing why there were 13 stripes on the flag, or not knowing why we recognize certain presidents’ birthdays, or what “the shot heard ‘round the world” was? "

    Ahem. Mexicans know about their own history. You are confusing Mexicans with Mexican Americans.

    An American raised outside of their country, having never been taught American History, associating the Fourth of July with fireworks and not much else, ignorant of the historical context, is similar to Mexican Americans not knowing about Cinco de Mayo.

    A Mexican American not knowing about the Fourth of July would be surprising, but I can forgive them for not knowing Mexican history.

    1. "You are confusing Mexicans with Mexican Americans." Yes, perhaps you are right. You draw a good analogy.

      Although, speaking as a teacher in the US, I can say with sad certainty that a shocking number of American students graduate from high school woefully ignorant of their own history. I don't know if that phenomenon is unique to the United States.

      I wonder if the globalization of tech (Internet, Skype, Facebook, etc...) will change the disconnectedness that Mexican Americans feel from Mexico, and allow Mexican Americans to be more... well, Mexican. Or is there just no substitute for the real thing?

    2. I thought the same as you. WE, born and raised in Mexico, know exactly what Cinco de Mayo is. The most that we would get close to celebrate, is holiday at school, meaning NO SCHOOL. I felt actually embarrassed when I moved to the US, and found out that even Mexican-American celebrated in a bigger way may 5th, rather than September 16th, and even angry, when nobody even acknowledge November 20th ( Mexican Revolution. Most Mexican-American come from born and raised mexican parents, and it's a shame that they have forgotten to teach their children about Mexican culture.

  2. I am a teacher of Spanish and an avid fan of history, especially Latin America and Spain. I am not claiming to be an expert. What I have seen is this: here in the states, in many areas of the US the celebration of Cinco de Mayo is an excuse to have a keg party. In some areas it was the beer companies that played up the holiday. This is very sad, as we do need to know about this holiday as there are connections to our own history (the friendship between Juarez and Lincoln and as noted the influence of our Declaration of Independence/Bill of Rights on Juarez).

    I spent the summer attending school in Puebla several years ago. I lived with a local family and was quite excited about seeing the sights associated with Cinco de Mayo. I was quite surprised to find out that it was not an event that was well-known in Puebla. My host family barely knew where the historical marker (a statue) was located. This is when I learned what Andrew stated earlier; that it is not a national holiday at all, but something that is.

  3. christmas and good friday are hardly us american holidays. either. nor is columbus day. :-) IMHO

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Thank you for helping me make my case. Ignorance on display, fellow readers. Well, I'm pissing people off; I must be doing something right.