Here’s part of an article I wrote for the Sentinel a few years back, with some up-to-date recommendations for May 5th celebrations.
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 September 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 the 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 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 sets 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? Battle between the states? 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 the 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 America Cinco de Mayo is to Mexico what St. Patrick’s Day is to Ireland: an excuse to eat and drink to excess.
Yes, the over-the-top Cinco de Mayo celebrations are largely an American invention, much like the practice of forcing a line 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, hey, I’m no party pooper. By all means, go out and have a rip-roaring celebration at a Mexican restaurant of your choice. Here are a few of my choices.