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Cinco de what?

Origins of holiday often unknown to revelers

By Daniel González
The Arizona Republic
May 04, 2001

Jim Garcia expects 2,500 people will celebrate Cinco de Mayo at his Mexican restaurant, making this one of his busiest days of the year.

But ask the owner of Garcia's in west Phoenix the meaning behind the holiday and he starts waffling.

"It's . . . It's . . . It's almost like Independence Day," Garcia says, venturing a guess. "From what I understand, it's when they (Mexico) separated from Spain. I think that's what I heard."

Sorry, Jim. You heard wrong. But don't be too embarrassed. Lots of folks in the United States confuse Cinco de Mayo (May 5) with Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16), or they have no inkling of its historic significance here and in Mexico.

For the record, Cinco de Mayo commemorates the historic Battle of Puebla in 1862 between 4,000 Mexican peasants, most of them Indians armed only with knives and machetes, against twice as many French soldiers, then considered the best fighting force in the world. The peasants' surprise victory helped instill a sense of pride and unity in a nation divided by class and race. It also raised Mexico's self-esteem after centuries of conquest and foreign intervention.

"People think it's the same as the Fourth of July," says Gary Weiand, a historian and teacher who has written about the Cinco de Mayo holiday. "It's more of a celebration that (Mexico) is a nation that endures."

It may be a stretch. But some historians speculate that the Mexican victory also may have changed the outcome of the Civil War in the United States by preventing Napoleon III from supplying Confederate rebels for another year and giving Union soldiers time to gain the upper hand in the war.

Many people who celebrate what has turned into a much bigger holiday in the United States than in Mexico, however, see it simply as a good excuse to chow down some Mexican food, wash it down with a few cervezas and perhaps enjoy a little mariachi music.

"It's the busiest day of the year. Christmas is the second," says Paco Gutierrez, manager of Arriba Mexican Grill in Phoenix. Gutierrez plans on serving more than 1,100 people, double the usual number for a Saturday, and has set up two tents outside to handle expected overflow.

In Phoenix, an outdoor Cinco de Mayo festival is expected to draw 225,000 people downtown today through Sunday, according to Ray Arvizu, event promoter and organizer. Cities throughout the Valley also are hosting Cinco de Mayo festivals.

Edward Escobar, a professor of Chicano and U.S. history at Arizona State University, says Mexican-Americans began celebrating Cinco de Mayo publicly in the United States with parades at least as early as 1917. It was a tool to express ethnic pride and draw recognition from mainstream society.

"It became a way of enforcing their culture and also to get Anglo dignitaries to pay attention to them," Escobar said.

He sees nothing wrong with the way Cinco de Mayo has evolved into an excuse to party for Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike. He views it as being akin to St. Patrick's Day: Its historical and cultural roots have been largely forgotten or ignored in favor of having fun.

"Drunkenness and debauchery are not obviously something I would support. But if people want to celebrate by having some Mexican food or having a Mexican-theme party, that's fine with me," Escobar said, even if so many people don't seem to know exactly what or why they are celebrating.

"Does it debase the holiday? No more than we debase Christmas," Escobar added. "Everything is commercialized in our society. The celebration is good in and of itself. I'd rather have it celebrated than ignored."

But Cordelia Candelaria, a professor of English and Chicana/Chicano studies at ASU, is troubled by the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo because so many people are unaware of the holiday's significance.

"It is a debasement," she said. "Christmas is a part of our heritage. We know what it means. It's been reinforced culturally. Cinco de Mayo has not. The fact that we are still trying to set the record straight, it does bother me."

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated not with drinking and food, but with parades and re-enactments of the historic David and Goliath battle known as the Batalla de Puebla, named after the city where the encounter took place. One of the biggest celebrations is held in Mexico City, where on May 5 members of the Mexican army dressed as peasants clashed with uniformed French soldiers in the city's famous zocolo, the huge plaza near downtown ringed by 16th-century colonial palaces.

"It was very emotional," said 18-year-old Yolanda Cabral, one of 13 Valley high school students who traveled to Mexico last year to learn about Cinco de Mayo as guests of then-Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.

"Just watching it made me feel very proud," said Cabral, an ASU student, who was born in Juarez, Chihuahua, and lived in Mexico until she was 10.

The students participated in a Cinco de Mayo parade through downtown Mexico City.

"It is an important holiday," said ASU student Minerva Romero, 18, who also participated in the trip. "A lot of people here think it's about Mexican Independence Day and it's not."

Romero said she is pleased that Cinco de Mayo has become such a popular celebration on this side of the border. But she wishes more people understood why they are celebrating.

"I'm glad people try and take part in our culture," she said. "But a lot of people need to learn more about the day."

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