The rhetoric of the last two years about walls, rapists, etc. has understandably made people more sensitive to stereotypical costumes and other Cinco de Mayo Practices that are doubly disrespectful when the perpetrator has not shown fundamental respect for the people and their culture in the first place.

For a long time, I’ve been slightly annoyed by any excessive excitement surrounding Cinco de Mayo. (I am often annoyed by excessive excitement surrounding anything.) However, when I accepted a job teaching Spanish in Bells, Texas, I could not escape Cinco Furor. The school allowed the Spanish teacher–for most of my time there I was the only Spanish teacher–to have classroom parties on certain days for “cultural” purposes. “When IS Cinco de Mayo?” the principal had asked as we worked out the calendar for a new school year. High school students are absolutely unforgiving if a teacher passes up an occasion to bring food to class, so I reluctantly agreed to join in the Cinco de Mayo frenzy for the sake of taquitos and cokes. I set out to find cut paper in red, white, and green, some Mexican flags and a few overworked serapes to justify a little feast during otherwise forbidden hours.

Long before I took that Spanish-teaching job, I had lived in Mexico, where Cinco de Mayo is not an official holiday. History teachers mentioned the Battle of Puebla in their classes on that day, television stations projected stock history documentaries, and newspapers would publish a perfunctory editorial or two. That was it. In Puebla, where the battle took place in 1862, there are muted celebrations. On occasion, May 1, which IS a holiday (oddly enough, a commemoration of the Haymarket affair, not celebrated in the United States, where it happened) and May 5, Mexico’s non-holiday would come together with a weekend in such a way as to justify a “puente,” a five-day weekend “bridge”, always welcomed joyfully by teachers and students alike as they struggled toward the finish of another school year. That was the extent of excitement about Cinco de Mayo.

Determined that the students should at least know that Cinco de Mayo is NOT Mexico’s Independence Day, I searched for the only teaching tool that students would accept on a party day: a movie.  I found one that was both entertaining (to me and a few adolescent history buffs, at least) and enlightening. “Juarez,” a 1939 release, featured Bette Davis, iconic film star from the early days of cinema, as the beautiful but unfortunate Charlotte of Belgium, who, with her husband Maximilian of Austria, occupied the imperial throne in Chapultepec Castle from 1864-1867.

You see, that surprising Mexican victory of May 5, 1862, in the city of Puebla, was bittersweet. It was followed by a long, hard struggle for independence, this time from France, not Spain. If, like me, you are a somewhat lazy aficionado of history, a Napoleonic time line might be just what you need to better understand what was happening in Mexico while our ancestors north of the border were busy killing each other to settle whether it was okay for a human being to buy and sell another human being. Here’s the link to the time line.

The Battle of Puebla had the unhappy short-term effect of causing the French, backed by Mexican Imperialists, to dig their heels in even deeper, believing that they COULD prevail on the American continent. The movie provides more-or-less true-to-history details about Mexico’s fight to remain independent, and the leader who is celebrated as the hero of that struggle, Benito Juarez, reported to have been a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, a detail that was not lost on the moviemakers.

As a ninth-grade student of Spanish, I had been fascinated by the picture in the textbook of Carlota in overlapping pink ruffles and the fact that Mexico, just a day’s drive away from my home in Wichita Falls, Texas, had been ruled by a real Emperor and Empress. Many years would pass before I knew for sure that this was not a good thing.

The evolution in my lifetime of Cinco de Mayo into a United States-Latino-Chicano drinkfest has been intriguing to me and my Mexican-born children, whom I transported back to my native culture in their teens. “Mom, what is the big deal about Cinco de Mayo?” they queried, as their classmates and the high school Spanish teacher asked them to give mini culture lessons on how they had celebrated this amazing festival in their home country where it originated.

“Tell them,” I advised, “that we celebrated it pretty much the same way people in the United States celebrate the Battle of Gettysburg.”

So, people all over the world celebrate Cinco de Mayo, commemorating a battle that happened in Mexico, as Mexicans themselves get up and go to work or to whatever it is that they do on every other ordinary day. Meanwhile, Labor Day, May 1, is celebrated all over the world except in the United States, the scene of the battle that it commemorates.

Suggested reading: Abraham Lincoln and Mexico by Michael Hogan

A vintage trailer for the 1939 movie, Juarez


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