By Yvette tenBerge
The quaint streets of Old Town, the birthplace of San Diego, are packed tightly each year with hundreds of thousands of people who are eager to participate in its annual Cinco de Mayo celebration. Between May 4th and May 6th, families come to make their way through its scenic streets and wander through its historic buildings, most of which were built in the early 1800s. Couples come to catch an ear-full of the live mariachi music that is showcased on Old Town's many stages, and throngs of college students make their pilgrimage in search of the biggest and best margarita or for a taste of the freshest and most authentic Mexican food.
Despite the wide variety of people who take part in this celebration, and despite the numerous diversions for which they come, there is one attraction for which everyone waits with anticipation. It is a live demonstration of a different sort. In the early morning hours of the weekend, these performers put on their cotton, wool or silk clothing (all of which is made without zippers or plastic buttons), pack their haversacks with any extra supplies that they might need, and grab their 19th-century weapon of choice before stepping out the door of their homes and heading to the battlefield.
In this day and age, most Californians know enough to no longer confuse Cinco de Mayo with Mexican Independence Day (September 16). They at least have some idea that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans celebrate May 5th to honor their ancestors who fought in the 1862 Battle of Puebla in Mexico. In this battle, 2,000 poorly armed men and women successfully defended their town from more than 6,000 French soldiers who were on their way to conquer Mexico City. While the Chairs of the Old Town celebration would like to believe that this is common knowledge, they know enough to expect that there will always be those people who are in need of a refresher course in history. It is for them that a dedicated group of volunteers annually transforms an empty plot of land behind the Seeley Stable into a military encampment where they will recreate the highlights of that historic day.
"What many people do not know is that about a year [after the Battle of Puebla], the French troops came back and wiped out the town. But for that point in time, for that one day in May, a rag tag group of people came together and were superior," says Larry Smith, the man responsible for organizing the roughly 75 volunteers who have performed the re-enactment for the past 12 years. His bright, blue eyes twinkle, and a smile emerges behind his Grizzly-Adams-like beard. He borrows a line from a Clint Eastwood movie to describe why he devotes large amounts of his time and resources to recreating historical events and battles. "I like to tell the good, the bad and the ugly. Nobody has all good history, but rising up through those bad moments are also wonderful and beautiful moments. People deserve to know it all."
It appears that Mr. Smith was destined to spend his future celebrating the past. Born in Rock-fork of Plum Creek, Kentucky, he labels himself as "one of the last people of this century to be born in a mountain cabin" and confesses that he has had a "life-long affair" with all aspects of history. Whereas most people's entire wardrobe might fill a closet or two, Mr. Smith's period clothing, alone, fills an entire room. Buckskin trousers, leather shooting bags, elaborate uniforms, replicated weapons and a number of refurbished hats (including three original Stetsons from the 1870s) take the place of T-shirts and suits. In the same tone that a renowned scholar would boast of his latest body of work, Mr. Smith sums up his skill as a re-enactor. "Persona-wise, I can do the entire 19th-century in 10 year increments. That includes all of the clothing and the individual weapons."
Although Mr. Smith's dedication may appear extreme to some, his story is standard amongst the other volunteers who perform at this re-enactment celebration. It is common for vacations to be scheduled around battle dates, and it is an accepted fact that each volunteer will cover his or her own travel expenses. As for payment for the 30-minute performances that they put on twice on Saturday and twice on Sunday, Mr. Smith laughs wholeheartedly before admitting that re-enactors are the only group of people that he knows "who, literally, work for food."
Frank Stamp, a postal worker who has been involved in re-enacting for the past four years, shakes his head knowingly at Mr. Smith's joke. His own uniform and weapons, exact replicas of those worn and carried by a Civil War Battalion called the Tenth New York Zouaves, cost him a total of $1,200, even though he cut costs drastically in utilizing the sewing skills of his wife and sister. Although Mr. Stamp served in the Navy for five years, it is not a fascination with war that drives him, or the majority of re-enactors, to perform.
"This is really more about the history. Many of the people who do this are interested in a particular era or battle," says Mr. Stamp, whose primary interest lies with the Civil War. Due to the similarity between his unit's uniform and the uniforms of the French who fought in Puebla, the Tenth New York Zouaves will be performing in the Battle of Puebla for the second year in a row. "What I like is when we go and put on a good show, and people come up and ask questions. They want to know why our uniform is a particular color or why we do what we do. A lot of children come up to us, and we get to teach them things they will never learn in history books."
Mr. Stamp readily provides a number of examples of the historical knowledge that all good re-enactors must know and that curious audience members might learn. One of these facts concerns the foot wear that soldiers in the mid to late 1800s were forced to wear. As with everything else on his navy, red and yellow-trimmed wool and flannel uniform, the boots that he wears are exact replicas of the foot wear worn in the mid to late 1800s. "The shoes that they wore [in the Civil War] had no particular right or left feet, and there were no half sizes. They also used wooden pegs to hold the shoes together instead of nails. They were very uncomfortable, so I get a lot of blisters. It really gives me a feel for what life was like for these soldiers."
When asked what battle is their favorite to re-enact, the two men pause and seem genuinely stumped. Finally, Mr. Smith reforms the question and provides an answer from the point of view of a re-enactor. "I can tell you that the Battle of Puebla is my favorite battle because it is one of the only battles that is recreated in an area that holds no particular significance. We re-enact this battle because it is important for the pageantry of Cinco de Mayo and because it is important to honor the fighting spirit of the Mexican people, but it did not happen here," says Mr. Smith, adding that this difference gives the volunteers a chance to relax a little more and to train new people who are interested in becoming involved in the world of historical re-enactment.
Mr. Smith goes on to explain that, just because there is no formal rehearsal for the Battle of Puebla, it does not mean that there are no rules to follow or that the participants are not prepared. Volunteers, many of whom perform in various battles throughout the year, arrive in the morning and participate in a safety check where they must prove their knowledge of their weapon. Even though powder is used in place of bullets, no weapon is actually aimed at any of the participants. "There is always a safety zone of 20 yards, so we never aim at each other. From the audience, it seems like we do, but part of this illusion has to do with the way we set people up in the field. The haziness from the smoke that comes out of the weapons also adds to the effect," says Mr. Smith. As for possible mistakes, he states that there are times when guns jam, but then he shrugs his shoulders. "You had guns jamming in real battles back then, so there really is not anything that could come up this weekend that we could not handle."
From the amount of knowledge and the level of dedication that these re-enactors exhibit, it seems that mother nature might be the only thing able to rain on their parade.
For anyone interested in becoming a volunteer contact Larry Smith at 619-615-8549. For anyone interested in joining the Tenth New York Zouaves contact Frank Stamp at 619-421-5586 or Dan Bergman at 909-854-8248.