Here’s a reprint of a Cinco de Mayo column I wrote a couple of years ago, along with some recommendations for celebrating the 5th of May:
Today is Cinco de Mayo, which, it turns out, has nothing to do with mayonnaise. No, Cinco de Mayo means the fifth of May, a date important in Mexican history. It is not, as many Americans believe, Mexico’s independence day; that is Sept. 16 — the declaration was signed at midnight on Sept. 15, 1810 — and in terms of importance is probably more significant than May 5, 1862.
That was the Battle of Puebla, which was fought in that Mexican state against French soldiers. It seems that Mexico had run up considerable debt with foreign countries, including Spain, England and France, and those nations sent parties to demand payment. Mexico offered IOUs of some sort, which Spain and England accepted and promptly left the premises.
The French, however, refused to leave the country and were immediately labeled illegal aliens. This angered them, and they decided to take over the country to settle the debt, a sort of quid pro quo, except they probably used a French term instead of Latin.
So the French army set out from Veracruz on the coast for Mexico City about 600 miles away. The Mexican government knew they were coming and contacted the United States and said, “Hola, the French are on their way. A little help here.” And Abraham Lincoln responded, “Hello? 1862? I’m a little busy.” Click. (Historians aren’t sure where the click came from because the telephone had not yet been invented.)
Meanwhile, back in Mexico, the French are passing through the state of Puebla and meet their Waterloo in the form of a poorly armed militia led by General Zaragoza. It was a great victory against a larger French army, and that’s why all over Mexico on Cinco de Mayo , well, not much happens.
Apparently the only real celebrations of the day occur in Puebla and Mexico City. Elsewhere not so much.
But here in the United States, Cinco de Mayo is to Mexico what St. Patrick’s Day is to Ireland: an excuse to eat and drink to excess.
Yes, over-the-top Cinco de Mayo celebrations are largely an American invention, much like the practice of forcing a lime into a bottle of Corona beer. Ask for a wedge of lime for your beer at a bar in a Mexican province, and the bartender would probably give you a look similar to the one a waiter in Italy would give you if you asked for a spoon to twirl your pasta with. It’s a deprecatingly bewildered look.
But I don’t want to burst your pinata. Here are some recommendations for celebrating this minor holiday.
Paxia, 2611 Edgewater Drive, Orlando; 407-420-1155.
Cantina Laredo, 8000 Via Dellagio Way, Orlando (one block west of Dr. Phillips Blvd.); 407-345-0186.
El Coqui, 2406 E. Washington St., Orlando; 407-601-4928.