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Cinco de Mayo and Cinco de Agosto

by NELSON P. VALDÉS

“Cinco de Mayo has been embraced by the American public as much or more than the citizens of its country of origin. Wherever you go, every Tex-Mex joint in sight has banners, balloons and Mariachi bands touting its own version of the holiday.”

– WTAE-TV (Pittsburgh, 05/05/08)

“Cinco de Mayo commemorates an important moment in the history of Mexico’s path to freedom. On this day in 1862, a small group of Mexican troops overcame overwhelming force to win the Battle of Puebla. Today, we join together to remember the sacrifice that these Mexican patriots endured, as well as the struggles of all those around the world striving for freedom. We recognize as well the important friendship that exists between our country and Mexico, and celebrate the many contributions Mexican-Americans have made to our society, culture, security and economy.”

– John McCain (USA Today 05/05/08)

“Cinco de Mayo is a joyful day in Mexican history and an important milestone in the history of freedom. On May 5, 1862, an outnumbered band of Mexican soldiers defeated a large European power against overwhelming odds at the Battle of Puebla. Emboldened by victory and yearning for independence, Mexican patriots ultimately won independence in 1867. Today, we remember these heroic accomplishments and all those working to advance peace and liberty around the globe..”*

– George W Bush (White House, 05/05/08)

May 5th is celebrated in the United States as “Mexican independence” day. But is this HISTORICALLY correct? Mexicans do not consider May 5th the day when independence was either proclaimed or achieved.May 5 [1862] refers to the battle of Puebla when French military forces, sent to collect a foreign debt owed by Mexico, were defeated. The French troops were supported by Spanish and British naval forces. A year later, 1863, the french colonial system imposed Ferdinand Maximilian as “Emperor of Mexico.” He will rule from 1863-1867.

Although it could be understood that communities need rituals and festivals as a means to foster, extend and deepen a sense of self and to connect such identity to history; are people of Mexican descent using the correct historical reference?

The first declaration of Mexican independence took place on September 16, 1810. That is the date that Mexico celebrates. However, real independence FROM SPAIN was not attained then.

The first REAL independent Mexico, as a nation-state, has to be traced to September 27-28th, 1821 when a constitutional monarchy was established under the leadership of Jose Agustin Iturbide. Mexico then was fully separated from Spain.To celebrate May 5th, consequently, is odd as well as historically incorrect. The question then is, why celebrate May 5th in the United States?

Laurie Kay Sommers writes, “Cinco de Mayo rose to prominence as a result of the Chicano Movement. Campus activists needed a culturally “symbolic day” as a focus for the issues and cultural revitalization of “la Causa” (the Cause). They selected Cinco de Mayo because its May date was better placed within the school calendar than the more significant fiesta patria, Diez y Seis de Septiembre, that occurred when some schools were not yet in session.” [1]

Thus, the political convenience had precedence over historical accuracy. But, the expedience of a school calendar sacrificed important historical lessons. When the United States seized 1/3 of Mexico’s territory many people of Mexican descent remained in what became the “American” southwest. The border crossed them. They became a colonized people. When Mexico was invaded by French forces and were defeated at Puebla, the Spanish speakers of the southwest learned of the Mexicans defeating a colonial power. And they certainly identified with that struggle.

However, it is the wrong date to identify with. May 5th, jumps over the really significant events that took place between 1821[when independence was achieved] and 1862. What is skipped is the US stealing of Mexican territory between 1846-1848. In other words, if one were to celebrate Mexico’s 1821 independence, then it would be necessary to address the colonialist/imperialist actions of the US that led to the US-Mexico war and the loss of such huge land base and its human resources.Moreover, 5 de Mayo has become a sponsored festival to market ethnic commodities devoid of political meaning. José M. Alamillo Chic has a very useful essay (Contesting Cinco de Mayo: Cultural Politics and Commercialization of Ethnic Festivals, 1930-1950) that shows that this is a manufactured American celebration for marketing purposes while depoliticizing the significant lessons from the real history of Mexico. [2]

The Mexican communities within the US, in the meantime, have identified the date as a means of asserting one’s own identity, assuming that it really signified national independence. “Pride” and “respect” have become features of the celebration among those who had been discriminated on the basis of their history (even when the victims are not fully acquainted with their own Mexican history).Presently, the manufactured identity and history has been appropriated by the mass media, transforming the sponsored convenient date into a marketing festival. Identity is achieved through shopping. Thus, neither the battle of Puebla nor Chapultepec Castle has much meaning any longer.

The struggle against the huge interests imposed by colonialist nations on a country’s debt; the assertion of national independence and a country’s right to control its own destiny and resources is simply lost.

“Pride” continues to be mentioned but it merely means personal success or worse. Be all that you, the personal and individuated you, can be. Which might not be too much as San Sessa of the Baltimore Sun states in today’s edition, “Happy Cinco de Mayo! For millions of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, today is a celebration of Mexico’s history stemming from a 1862 military victory over France. For Americans, today is a reason to drink tequila, South American beer and frozen drinks.”

The New York Times in an editorial notes, “What would holidays be without commerce? Hallmark turned Mother’s Day from a call for peace into the day of the greeting card. De Beers turned Valentine’s Day into a reason to buy diamonds. On this day, Cinco de Mayo, we celebrate Corona’s prowess in helping craft the nation’s most famous Latino fiesta out of a battle in a Mexican city many Latinos have never heard of.” [3]

Cinco de Mayo indeed! Then six shopping months left to Dia de los Muertos! And then another handful of shopping weeks to Navidades! Now every buying day is a Cinco de Mayo.

Meanwhile, today (May 5th, 2008) a Harris County judge in Houston, Texas, set the final execution date of a convicted Mexican citizen (José Ernesto Medellín). The requests of the Mexican government and the International Court of Justice not to have the Mexican citizen executed was not granted by the US Supreme Court. The date of the execution will will be the Cinco de Agosto (August 5th). [4]

NELSON P. VALDÉS is a Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico.

Notes

[1] “Inventing Latinismo: The Creation of ‘Hispanic Panethnicity in the United States.” Journal of American Folklore (1991), 104: 32-53.
[2] http://latino.si.edu/ ]
[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/05/opinion/05mon4.html)
[4] “Fijan fecha para la ejecución de mexicano en Texas,” El Universal (Mexico), May 5, 2008. http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/notas/504347.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.

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