Culture & Commercialization: Demystifying Cinco de Mayo

Thousands are gathered on the streets of Puebla, Mexico, to witness the traditional celebrations of Cinco de Mayo.

Thousands are gathered on the streets of Puebla, Mexico, to witness the traditional celebrations of Cinco de Mayo. An iconic reenactment of the Battle of Puebla kicks off the annual commemoration, in which citizens dress up as Mexican and French soldiers, donning crimson-red and navy blue uniforms, respectively. They march in unison, carrying flags, bayonets, miniature cannons, and patriotic memorabilia.

Suddenly, the "war" breaks out. Thwarting an aggressive intervention from the French forces, the outnumbered Mexican army emerges victorious against all odds. The French forces retreat from Puebla, and Cinco de Mayo celebrations officially commence. From 20,000 performers parading through Puebla to children dancing to the beat of mariachi music, poblano culture is on full display. Nonetheless, Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of more than just a famous Mexican victory; rather, the holiday serves as an important reminder of a gruesome, but pivotal, turning point in Mexico's history.

Widely misinterpreted as Mexico's Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates the Mexican army's unexpected victory over the French forces of Napoleon III in the Battle of Puebla. In the mid 19th century, Mexico was in substantial debt, mainly due to internal conflict, resulting in President Benito Ju√°rez reneging to pay the debts the country owed to European governments. In response, Spain, France, and Britain sent naval forces to Veracruz, Mexico's main commercial port, to demand payment. While Mexico ultimately reached a settlement with Britain, leading to the withdrawal of British troops, the French ruler, Napoleon III, took advantage of this opportunity to attempt to conquer the territory. In 1861, the robust, well-armed French fleet entered Veracruz forcing the Mexicans to retreat. Expecting victory, the French forces pressed inland, ultimately arriving at Puebla, a small city in central Mexico. Much to the dismay of the French forces, Ju√°rez was one step ahead of them; he had stitched together an army of 2,000 rag-tag soldiers, consisting of natives and those of mixed-heritage to defend Puebla. Even though his army was outnumbered and significantly less-equipped, the soldiers successfully held off the French invaders, forcing them into retreat. Ultimately, the Battle of Puebla not only allowed Mexico to thwart a French invasion at the time, but also to protect its sovereignty as a nation.

According to Alexis Gonzalez '22, though Americans tend to view Cinco de Mayo as a grand celebration, the event is seen as more "of historical war that [Mexico] won than a big event." Growing up in a predominantly Latino community, Gonzalez explained that the holiday was initially a "symbol of empowerment" for those of Mexican heritage in the late 1860s. However, as time passed, Cinco de Mayo's importance evolved into a distant memory when the early 20th century rolled around. Reminiscing on their childhood, both Jessica Fernandez '22 and Gonzalez recall only exclusively celebrating the holiday as a day set aside by their teachers. Attending a bilingual school at the time, Fernandez said she and her classmates were "taught to celebrate" Mexican culture on Cinco de Mayo rather than focusing on the details of the event itself. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Natalia Ibarra '20 came to know of the holiday because she "grew up in America, not because of [her] Hispanic heritage"; she also noted that Cinco de Mayo is "just like any other day" for her family.

The Americanization of Cinco de Mayo began in the late 1980s and 1990s, when marketers in the U.S capitalized on the rise in Hispanic consumers in the spirits industry. Cinco de Mayo has since evolved into a heavily-commercialized celebration of Mexican culture, subsequently leading to false assumptions about its history. The widespread misconception that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico's independence day serves as a prime example of the ambiguity surrounding this holiday. Due to commercialization, Fernandez feels that the holiday has "lost its touch" and merely serves as "an excuse to party." Echoing these sentiments, Marlene Guadian '22 wishes that people understood the holiday's historical significance, noting that "it's important to know what they're truly celebrating."

While the holiday originated in Mexico, present-day celebrations primarily take place in Puebla. In fact, Language Master Josefina Ayllón-Núñez lived in Mexico until she was 11, but she had never heard of the holiday as a child. It was only in college when people had asked her, 'oh, why don't you celebrate Cinco de Mayo?' did she realize how widely acknowledged the event was in the U.S. As an undergraduate, Ayllón-Núñez studied abroad and lived with a host family in Puebla. Prior to the main Cinco de Mayo parade, Ayllón-Núñez recalls her host brother practicing baile folklórico-a traditional Mexican dance-at a community museum. In fact, she was informed that many students who were participating in the parade, "El Festival del Aniversario de la Batalla de Puebla," were excused from a full week of classes to prepare for the parade. "For them, this was a big deal…they really feel pride for the battle that they won against the French." Ayllón-Núñez said.

Although commercialization has overshadowed the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo, Ibarra believes that Mexican-Americans have had the chance to "celebrate their heritage [in the U.S.] in a way they might not have gotten to." Despite the circulation of certain misconceptions, Cinco de Mayo has raised awareness for Mexican culture in the U.S., while providing a time for families to commemorate the battle that served as a moral victory for the nation-one that has undoubtedly left a lasting legacy in Mexico's history.

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