Cinco de Mayo: Mexican Holiday or American Festival?

by April 25, 2012 at 2:00 pm 2,099 0

Cinco, de, Mayo, DC,

Next week we will have a roundup of Cinco de Mayo hotspots in the neighborhood. (Luis Gomez Photos)

From Matty Rhoades. Email him at matty[AT]

We knew Cinco de Mayo was becoming a serious DC celebration when we got an early notice from a local eatery regarding their plans for the 5th of May (Commissary and sister restaurant The Heights have planned special menus, are even taking reservations, and Commissary has lined up Latin guitarist Ricardo Marlow, from 5 to 7:30 pm.)

BTW, not worry, we’ll have a wrap up for you next week on what local venues are planning for 2012 Cinco de Mayo. But before you start planning your festivities (fortunately the holiday falls on a Saturday this year), and contemplating shots of tequila, let’s take a minute to clear up some common misconceptions about Cinco de Mayo.

No, It’s Not Mexico’s Independence Day

First, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day.  In 1861, the French invaded Mexico to force repayment of debts. The 5th of May, 1862, commemorates the Mexican army’s unexpected victoryover French forces at the Battle of Puebla. However, even with the Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla, the French were able to gain control of the country. French Emperor Napoleon III installed Maximilian I (an Austrian) as emperor of Mexico, which lasted until 1867 when the French Army was finally driven from the country.

See? We told you that Cinco de Mayo is something much different than what you probably assumed.

Grito de Dolores (“Cry of Dolores”) on September 16 is recognized in Mexico as Independence Day — on that day in 1810 the war for independence from Spain began. The day is also known as  El Grito de la Independencia (“Cry of Independence”) or El Dieciseis de septiembre.

Mexican-Americans and Cinco de Mayo

So, what do Mexican-Americans think of Cinco de Mayo? Is it as important as the U.S. festivities might lead one to believe?

Borderstan Food Editor Alejandra Owens grew up in Arizona and her mother is Mexican-American. “While I’m hesitant to speak for a whole culture, I think you’d be hard pressed to find any Mexican-Americans that take the holiday seriously,” said Owens.

When asked if Americans understood Cinco de Mayo, Owens replied: “I think Americans are clueless about the holiday. Most would probably say it’s ‘Mexican Independence Day,’ but it’s not. It’s like St. Patrick’s Day — people just view it as a fun excuse to party. And maybe don some racially insensitive hats.” She added, “In Arizona, we were more likely to celebrate Rodeo Week.”

Local real estate agent Fernando Garcia was born in Texas and lived for a few years in Mexico with his family before moving back to Texas. “In our family, The Day of The Dead [Día de los Muertos] was celebrated and recognized more than Cinco de Mayo. We did celebrate El Dieciseis de Septiembre every year with fireworks and parties — not Cinco de Mayo,” said Garcia.

So, has Cinco de Mayo become “gringoized,” so to speak? “Very. This is very ‘Corporate America.’ Anything to make a buck and commercialize a holiday for profits,” said Garcia.

Danny Hernandez lives grew up in Texas and now lives in D.C. “When talking to my grandmother about Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Mexico, she said entire towns have events similar to a county fair. There are games, food, carnival attractions, dancing, a rodeo, a parade, and they elect a queen. It’s an all day celebration, but not something she found when she moved to the states, hence I didn’t grow up celebrating it in Texas,” said Hernandez.

How does Hernandez view the American version of the 5th of May? “When I moved to D.C. two years ago I was surprised at how many bars and restaraunts had Cinco de Mayo specials and events, despite the very small Mexican population here. My first Cinco de Mayo in the city, I texted the few Mexicans I knew, to ask how they would be celebrating. None of them had plans, even though many of my non-Mexican friends were going out,” said Hernandez.

Whatever your views about Cinco de Mayo — and how well you understand it — it’s a great day to have fun and remember that it signifies something important in Mexican history.

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