Cinco de Mayo: Mexico’s Biggest Export

Today is a day worth remembering for a variety of reasons, both contemporary and historical.  Today’s date, the infamous “cinco de mayo,” has become quite a notorious and popular occasion to celebrate Mexican heritage and national identity…even though it’s not actually Mexico’s official Day of Independence (that’s the 16th of September).

Evincing his need for a Spanish interpreter, President Obama yesterday welcomed Mexican dignitaries at the White House and, a day early—maybe that’s what tripped him up—touched off celebrations for “cinco de cuatro…” or was that supposed to be “cinco de mayo?”  Despite demonstrating either that his Spanish isn’t that good or that he needs some rest from a demanding job, President Obama’s gesture was kindly welcomed by Mexicans who are at the moment facing a difficult national predicament what with the H1N1 virus (that’s right, we’re not going to call it either swine flu or Mexican flu, especially not on cinco de mayo) wreaking havoc throughout the nation.  Fortunately, events seem to be looking up for Mexicans afraid of a pandemic, which might result in more jubilant festivities today; but exactly who celebrates cinco de mayo, and what’s the history behind this date?

Though it is a hugely popular occasion in the US, it would seem that within Mexico itself the date is only occasion for celebration in a few regions, especially near the city of Puebla.  The 5th of May, 1862, was the day that Mexican forces under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín defeated French occupying forces at the Battle of Puebla, a victory which ironically wasn’t decisive as the French would continue to occupy Mexico until 1867.  Perhaps if the battle had been more conclusive cinco de mayo would be more widely celebrated in Mexico itself, though the minimal consequences it had on the military campaign against the French helps explain its regionalization.

The roughly three year period during which Emperor Maximilian I (the French puppet ruler, installed in 1864 and deposed in 1867) reigned over Mexico was in fact the second time the European nation interfered in the affairs of sovereign Mexico, and just as the first time the justification for incursion was $$$.  Though in the 1860s the pecuniary issue centered around defaulted loans, in the 1838 invasion of Mexico the catalyst was to be had in the form of a pastry chef claiming damages from looting committed by Mexican troops: hence the title “The Pastry War.”  Only a country so in love with its pastries could follow such a course of action…

Surely many people will hear some of these details from a Mexican friend or colleague in between the Coronas and tequilas, though if that’s the case they probably won’t retain much of the information; which is why it’ll be necessary to rehash the same knowledge next year when everybody asks themselves “What’s cinco de mayo all about again?”