by Gustavo Arellano
Cinco de Mayo is worthless. There, I said it.
It’s not pointless because it serves the nationalist project of promoting pride in one’s country and its heritage. And for this reason, it’s not stupid since it has worked like a charm of making Mexicans out of many Americans come May 5, even if the extent of commitment for México lindo y querido is drinking Corona instead of Budweiser.
But it is worthless.
Celebrating Cinco de Mayo is worthless because it commemorates a supposedly grand victory that ultimately meant and did nothing. Sure, Zaragosa and his troops held off the French that glorious day in Puebla in 1862 but it didn’t drive the frogs away for good; indeed, this humiliating defeat convinced them that they needed more troops. The next time the French and Mexicans fought (a year later), the French whipped some Mexican ass and ushered in the era of the French occupation under the Hapsburg Maximillian.
I do not mean to diminish the actual event itself, since the ragtag Mexican army crushed what was considered the finest military in the world at the time. Nevertheless, celebrating Cinco de Mayo is like remembering Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” for the charging part while conveniently forgetting the massacre at the end. It’s like celebrating los niños héroes for jumping off the tower at Chapultepec Castle while forgetting the reason why they plunged to their death. Call it bravery, call it never surrendering; I call it ignorance and self-defeatism.
To celebrate the blip of Cinco de Mayo in the ultimate struggle that didn’t do much to stop the French onslaught is to continue the peculiarly Mexican fixation of harping over our losses.
Mexicans bemoan the Conquest nearly 500 years after the fact, simultaneously outraged that the Spaniards slaughtered and raped the inhabitants of Anahuac and angry that Montezuma acquiesced so quickly to Cortes. The outright theft of half of Mexico 150 years ago because of Santa Anna’s moronicies gets some Chicanos so caught up in misery they start comparing themselves to Palestinians (Palestinians! As if someone who speaks horrid Spanish, has parents born in Jalisco that are descended from Europeans and Mexican Indians, and who hasn’t lived a day without potable water can logically compare themselves to people who have lived in the same parched spot since the time of Christ). The PRI bilked us dry year after year. Díaz sold us out to the Americans. That pretty-boy <vendido> De la Hoya beat Cháveztwice. Loss is in all Mexicans’ mind in one way or another, as is the bitter thought that there was nothing we were able to do about it and we can’t change it even if we tried.
Celebrating Cinco de Mayo merely continues that. Cinco de Mayo isn’t a victory at all, as much as us Mexicans try to tell ourselves and others that it is. The French occupation of Mexico was successful even if we did drive them out. We taste it every morning in our pan dulce, listlessly practice it in our quinceañera waltzes, and praise it to high heaven whenever the mariachi violins begin their pizzicato coda. Cinco de Mayo is a reminder of our failings in trying to confront those who would colonize Mexico and our constant carping over it.
Let’s start getting rid of this fatalistic streak by stopping the Cinco de Mayo celebration. Napoleon III was an egomaniac who during his lifetime began France’s imperialism in Indochina and Africa in the hopes of emulating his uncle (for a great portrayal of how loony the Third really was, check out Claude Rains’ hammy performance in 1939’s Juarez). The Maximillian-Carlota duo that ruled Mexico with a velvet glove is best remembered as two pitiful royals desperate for the adoration of their subjects. Yet we celebrate the memory of their conquest every fifth of May by claiming that we defeated them. If only that were truly the case.
Gustavo Arellano is the editor of OC Latino (www.oclatino.net), from which this article was originally published