May 2, 2003

5 de Mayo:

A Cinderella in Mexico’s Civic Calendar and a National Holiday for the Chicano Community in the United States

By Professor Raúl Rodríguez

Ever since I was a kid I’ve considered 5 de Mayo as the Ugly Duckling of the civic and school calendar. The 16th of September (Independence Day) and the 20th of November (Mexican Revolution), where and still are the “real” holidays, where you can count on a parade and for the joys of every student- and even some teachers- school is out.

On the other hand, the 5 de Mayo has always been on the back seat, a “lesser god” in the civic Pantheon. But that is not the case near the border and especially in the US, where the 5 de Mayo is far away from my childhood images of Cinderella or the Ugly Duckling. On the contrary and especially in the last fifteen years, Mexican-Americans or Chicanos, Hispanic-Americans and even some Anglo-Americans have made 5 de Mayo into a holiday spectacle the size of San Patrick’s, the Irish and Irish-descent holiday in the United States.

There may be other explanations for this phenomenon, but here’s my justification on why we Mexicans treat this Poblano holiday so badly. The 16th and 20th are seen as historic landmarks, watershed events in our nation’s collective memory. But such is not the case with El cinco in México, where very few people give it high priority in its observance. As a historian, I believe it should have the same if not more relevance against the two “giant twins” mentioned above. It should be considered a critical link, and an icon reminding us of our long and winding road to the identity we now assume.

Therefore as a Mexican historian I know give the readers some facts and comments in defense of Cinco de Mayo for their kind consideration:

I. Historical Background.

The same way the 16th and the 20th are explained in a rich historical background full of theories, hypothesis, causes and processes, so is the Cinco (even though there are not so well known by the common Mexican on the street). So here is a list of important contextual-topics to help us reconsider the Battle of Puebla as a relevant historical milestone.

1. Endemic bankruptcy of the Central government, since 1821.

2. Weak and politically unstable Central government that lead to regionalism and development of strong caciquism all through México.

3. Communication and transport system totally disjointed, (which further exacerbated regionalism and caciquism).

4. High vulnerability to foreign invasions.

5. Ideological rivalry between Conservatives and Liberals.

6. Church and state conflict.

7. Endemic militarism.

8. Lack of national identity.

9. French imperialistic ambitions carried out by Napoleon III, while trying to be as imperial as his uncle, Napoleon.

10. European internecine conflicts in Europe and abroad.

11. The Industrial Revolution.

12. The US Civil War (1861-1865): a House Divided.

13. The Monroe Doctrine vs. Europe.

II. Psychological Aspects.

After the Mexican defeat –not so much an American victory–of the Mexican American War (1846-1848), Mexico went through a severe physical trauma in the form of territorial mutilation, and great loss of lives and property. But defeat also meant a psychological trauma for a country that had been invaded four times ( three successfully) by a foreign power; México’s surprisingly quick victory over this second French invasion (1861-1867) and fourth foreign invasion- meant in a certain sense the rising of a new national identity for Mexicans. The birth of an urgently awaited identity was just the thing it needed to face its domestic problems and international challenges, contributing to the ranting chaos that prevented national cohesion. The final defeat of the French and their Mexican allies, the conservatives, laid the platform where liberal icons and great 19th century heroes, Benito Juárez and Porfirio Díaz Mori, who build the foundations of the modern Mexican nation hood.

III. Cross Border Aspects.

It has become obvious to all that 5 de Mayo is celebrated more vividly by Mexican-Americans in the US than by Mexicans in their own land. The roots of this phenomenon go back to the eighteen hundreds, when Mexican communities celebrated both the 16th and 5 de Mayo, but preferred the latter towards the end of 1870´s. Why? These are some of the possible reasons that may help us understand:

1. 5 de Mayo is more recent (just 15 years before) in comparison with the 16th (1821, some 80 years before then.

2. During the French Intervention, most Chicanos were liberal allies (supporting Benito Juárez) especially in the state of California, so they often showed their support by sending money or volunteers across the border to join Mexican resistance guerilla fighters.

3. Most Mexicans who made up the first significant emigration wave to the United States (1880-1900) where liberal or supported Juárez. They joined Mexican-Americans in their 16 and 5 de Mayo festivities, making the party crowd seem larger and stronger. The Mexican-American press, civic and labor unions promoted these patriotic festivities as a way to show ethnic/national and cultural unity and identity. There are sample newspaper sources about huge parades, horse races, rooster fights and political speeches full of patriotic remarks all over Southern California’s major cities; San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

4. Recently, the Cinco de Mayo festivities have been overflowing Mexican-American neighborhoods into mainstream Anglo-American festivities, competing for a place right by St. Patrick’s (March 17th). For many it is not important if Cinco de Mayo is mixed up or confudes with the 16th, as long as it means people taking advantage of the “Cinco de Mayo Specials.”

5. Ever since 1921, the Mexican government started exporting “Mexican nationalism” through its consulates, so in a way they where direct organizers and promoters of the “civic twins”, the 16th and the Cinco.

Final thoughts.

Why has there been a recent boom, or fuss over this holiday among Mexican Americans, Hispanic American, and even among “anglos”? in other words, how do we explain this sudden taco-bellization of Cinco de Mayo? I believe we are in the presence of a struggle between consumerism and marketing vs. civic ethnic pride, cultural identity and politically correct history. Probably No one has thoroughly won, but we know so far as a fact the following:

· A constant rising of the Mexican and Hispanic-American population in the US.

· Consequently, this causes the augmentation of the Hispanic-American market, but more importantly, a rising generation of Hispanic-American businessmen and woman controlling mass media, therefore further promoting 5 de Mayo.

· Mainstream Anglo-acceptance of the 5 de Mayo Holiday as a somewhat de facto national holiday, and necessarily not really caring about its Mexican origin, historic background or the implications it has on Mexican, Hispanic or Mexican-American Identity.

So what about us, the Mexicans in México?

Easy, I’ve come to the happy conclusion that our children’s analogy of Cinderella is very accurate: We should not wait for a prince charming to come to us with our lost crystal slipper. We should go out and find it, looking for it in our own ignorance, insensibility and our national lack of memory. It has become an urgent task to look for our price charming – a historian in this case–to help us look for what we have lost: the true historical and psychological meaning of the Cinco de Mayo.

Professor Raúl Rodríguez González is a Mexican historian, living in Tijuana since 1951. He is currently a professor and director of the Luis Fimbres Moreno Library and Information Center at Cetys University, Tijuana Campus. Comments: rraúl@tij.cetys.mx or rraul427880@hotmail.com. (First published in 1999 and revised for La Prensa in 2003)

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