Hoy las armas nacionales se han cubierto de gloria.
Ignacio Zaragoza, May 5th, 1862.
(I posted this originally on my blog back in 2014.)
First of all, I’d have to mention that the inspiration behind this piece came back in St. Patrick’s Day, when I read Seamus McKiernan’s article on The Huffington Post titled “Why I don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day”. At first, I thought it was kinda odd, but later on I could find a reasonable ground for discussion about this topic, and actually how many similar issues could be found about celebrating Cinco de Mayo and those like me who have Mexican heritage. I saw the parallelisms between both festivities. I saw the common ground between Irish and Mexican immigrants, with the bonus of remembering all those brave fighters who were part of the St. Patrick’s Batallion, who switched sides to fight for Mexico in the US-Mexican War. (And the reason why I think it’d be cool to go to Clifden, Connemara, Ireland on September 12th, to see the Mexican flag flying in remembrance of John Riley and his “Patricios”).
At first, my perspective was lukewarm about actively celebrating Cinco de Mayo. Cinco de Mayo is way more than enchiladas and tequila. It is way more than wearing a large sombrero and a fake moustache. Cinco de Mayo, though it might be done in remembrance of a temporary victory over the French, represented again how the odds were against the feeble and outnumbered David winning over a cocky and strong Goliath.
Having lived in Mexico showed me the two different perspectives toward this celebration. In Mexico, May 5th is a national bank holiday, since it is the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, back in 1862, when the Mexican army defeated the French. Obviously, there would be official government ceremonies, but not wide public celebrations as seen in United States. Perhaps one of the reasons behind that marked difference of celebrations might be due to the leader of that Mexican army, a general named Ignacio Zaragoza.
This is the story of a man who was born in one little town, where nine flags have flown over the time. A little town that belonged to three countries while he was alive. A man who had it all against him. His family left the town where he was born to move down south, two years before the ones that called themselves Texians defied a central government looking forward to become a independent country named Republic of Texas. Growing up, he was enrolled to become a man of religion, but the times were changing so he pursued a different career. He might have not imagined back then that he was about to face a great challenge, and even less that he would overcome it to give a glimpse of glory to his name. Back then, Mexico was a country troubled by long internal fighting between Conservatives and Liberals. Such division and struggles had influenced in the loss of half its territory to United States of America and a number of serious problems, which were such a hurdle for the healthy growth of a nation. This same division caused in the long run that another foreign power became interested into invading them as well.
8 years before the French invasion, there was a competition to write a National Anthem. The lyrics of the chosen winner (the one still being used as Mexican National Anthem) say:
“Mas si osare un extraño enemigo
profanar con su planta tu suelo,
piensa ¡oh Patria querida! que el cielo
un soldado en cada hijo te dio.”
(But if some enemy outlander
should dare to profane your ground with his sole,
think, oh beloved Fatherland!, that Heaven
has given you a soldier in every son.).
This was not totally true until 1862. For that brief moment, a man knew how to unify and lead his army to defeat a better one, fulfilling that half-stanza. He commanded a poorly equipped and outnumbered Mexican army to defend the city of Puebla against elite French forces.
Ignacio Zaragoza was Texan-born, from a place known today as Goliad, Texas (though similar to Goliath, the name is believed to be an anagram to Hidalgo, the founding father of Mexico) This happened years before the Independence of Texas from Mexico. This mere fact might establish the first reason behind the popularity of Cinco de Mayo in the States: how a Texan-born, fighting for another country (though he was raised more like a Mexican than a Texan), could defeat the best army back then. A short-lived victory though, since a year later the French defeated the Mexican and helped establishing the Second Mexican Empire, with Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg as emperor, and Zaragoza passed away of typhoid fever before Maximilian was crowned.
Some historians go further in the analysis regarding the increased importance of this apparently isolated event. During the same time-frame, United States was going through the Civil War, and though there were no direct support from the States to either Mexico or France, historians like José Antonio Burciaga believe that if the French had won that battle, they would have aid the South to free the blocked ports. According with several academic studies, Cinco de Mayo became quite popular during the 1940’s due to the Chicano movement, as a banner for the Latino movement in California.
However, whichever the reasons Cinco de Mayo has achieved this higher relevance in United States than in Mexico, my concern is that, as McKiernan expressed, this celebration it is becoming in just an excuse to drink and recreate a fake stereotype of Mexican people. Not everyone in Mexico wears a sombrero, or drinks tequila. The most famous kind of enchiladas made around the States is not even common in Mexico (and of inferior quality, if you mind asking). Though it is heartwarming — for those who share Mexican heritage like me — to see music and traditions being celebrated through United States, at a certain extent it becomes amusing and somewhat annoying when a non-Mexican says “Happy Mexican Independence Day!”, which in fact is celebrated on September 16th, and it is actually a bigger of a deal in Mexico, of course, before the pandemic. In times before the social distancing ages, everyone would gather with family and friends, preparing traditional dishes and drinks, wearing traditional costumes and waiting for the ceremony of the “Grito”, where the Mexican President goes in front of the crowd waving the Mexican flag shouting Vivas in remembrance of the equivalent of our Founding Fathers.
Some might say: “Whatever! Good for you, we will drink the tequila!” and I do respect, and please do (just don’t drink and drive and follow the CDC indications). But I do consider that there are still quite sensitive issues for Mexicans living in the United States, being immigration maybe the most important. I am not against an inclusion of Mexican customs as acknowledgement of the widespread Mexican heritage that many of us share; nevertheless, I would like to see more content in these celebrations. Cinco de Mayo should be a reminder of how we can achieve things even against all odds, if we learn to overcome the strengths of our adversaries and join all our efforts. To help people see Mexico is more than bad news related with violence, and that we should be proud of this heritage. Mexico is the country of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, of Alfonso Cuarón, Lubezki, Iñarritu, Guillermo del Toro and Diego Luna. The country of Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, Gonzalez Camarena, Mario Molina, Hugo Sanchez, Rafa Márquez and Chicharito. The country whose soccer representative defeated the Brazilian giant in the shrine of English football back in 2012 in London, and defeated Germany in their first match in Russia 2018. The country of a general who, against all odds, in front of a few thousand ragged soldiers held the world’s most powerful army back then, covering the national weapons with glory.
(I wrote this piece back in pre-pandemic times. As we see the light at the end of the pandemic, it’s understandable to start relaxing some of the restrictions and try to go back to normal. So if you want to join in the Cinco de Mayo celebration spirit, just remember to follow the CDC indications for a safe celebration. Salud!)