The Misunderstood History and Heritage of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de MayoIt was a beautiful, balmy 70 degrees as I ordered a Manhattan at my favorite watering hole when a half intoxicated German college student asked me “whaaa in the hell are you drinking? It’s Mexican independence, gringo!”  Of course he was referring to Cinco de Mayo or what I like to call… May 5th. And of course the gringo referenced my Mexican mother and Mexican-American father as well as my Manhattan. I really didn’t feel the need to let him know that Mexican Independence was on September 16th (I was lucky enough to celebrate it as a child in Hermosillo MX, the home of my mother). And as much as my defiant sense of being wanted to correct him I figured if he is happy and feels connected with my past, at least until his hang over tomorrow, who am I to judge? But now that he has long forgotten me and probably the bar he was at that night I do not mind some correction.

1901 Biblioteca del Nino Mexicano
1901 Biblioteca del Nino Mexicano

Cinco de Mayo as many of us know is not the Independence of Mexico. It was a day of a battle when a rag-tag group of Mexican farmers, clergymen and soldiers fought against the French army. In 1861, Mexican president Benitó Juarez realized that his Government was broken and therefore could not pay back his debtors. Because France had an interest in the country and the United States was in the early stages of civil war, they took the opportunity to set up Mexico as a French colony. It was on May 5th, 1862 in the province of Puebla, when this small group of Mexican soldiers thwarted the French armies. This did not win the war or stir the tide but on May 27th, Mexicans in the small mining community of Columbia California, some 100 miles east of San Francisco, first heard of this battle. It was not long before songs were sung, guns were randomly shot in the air and speeches given, as well as copious amounts of whisky consumed (as it would be more readily available than Tequila). This was the start of what has become a Mexican celebration that Mexico, with the exception of small groups in Puebla, never knew existed.

Cinco de Mayo has a long tradition in the United states even if our friends who fought in the battle have long forgotten it. One of the earliest documented celebrations dates back to 1895 when the Club Filarmonico Tucsonense (Tuscan Philharmonic) played for a banquette. The philharmonic features non other than Federico Ronstadt, singer Linda Ronstadt’s great grand father. In 1896, the LA Times called Cinco de Mayo “Mexico’s second Independence” and generations of misinformed Mexican-American’s were born.

Tuscan Philharmonic circa 1894
Tuscan Philharmonic circa 1894

For many years, Cinco de Mayo remained a very small and obscure holiday celebrated by a handful of Mexican-Americans in largely Mexican communities throughout the United States. It wasn’t until the 1940s when the Chicano movement took hold in major metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago that anyone really paid attention. In the summer of 1942, a common swimming hole for young Mexican-Americans called The Sleepy Lagoon became a famous crime scene when Jose Diaz’s body was found. The corruption and racial divide in the City of Angels came to light and the Zoot Suit Riots began. People were no longer able to hide civic corruption as this divide grew. It was around this point that Cinco de Mayo began to hit a wider mainstream in the Mexican-American culture. After all, the celebration was that of fighting oppression and conquest and unlike the 1810 fight for independence, the struggle in 1862 did not end the occupation of the imperial French but it drew a line in the sand – a line to Mexican cultural identity.  This became an intrinsic part of defiance as to who we were as a people.

1940, LA Public Library Photo Collection
1940, LA Public Library Photo Collection

Unfortunately as with most sincere celebrations and lines in the sand someone thought…”$$$$.” In the 1980s, beer companies began to use television and magazines to market to Americans. It soon became the tradition of cheaply made beers and tequilas for Americanized Mexican restaurants and bars. Nachos and poorly made margaritas for all!!!

In the end I can not blame my German friend, most people love many aspects of Mexican culture. I would argue with anyone that Mexican food when done correctly can offer the most dynamic flavors with the simplest of ingredients. Of course I am very biased here. But to me, the idea of celebrating any culture is worth celebrating.

So for us purists, when someone offers you a shot of mixto Tequila, don’t correct their misinformed celebration. Let them celebrate. Rather correct their vice of celebration, there is nothing like a great pour of Mezcal or Tequila. Something worthy of sipping like Mezcales de Leyenda, Guerrero (Gold medal winner in the 2014 New York International Spirits Competition)  or Miel de Tierra Reposado Tequila (Silver medal winner 2014 NYISC). Perhaps a classically styled cocktail, with a French ingredient as a nod to the soldiers who were held at bay, and not a Margarita. Don’t get me wrong – Margaritas are great, but a cocktail of contemplation may give us a better sense of why we celebrate, after all, a true celebration should always have an edge of defiance!

Blind Defiance cocktail, photo by Manny Gonzales
Blind Defiance cocktail, photo by Manny Gonzales

Blind Defiance

  •  2 oz/60 ml Partida Tequila Añejo
  • 3/4 oz/22 ml French Vermouth Rouge
  • 1/4 oz/7 ml Bonal Gentiane Quina Aperitif
  • 1 bar spoon Maple syrup (for viscosity)
  • 2 dashes Spanish Bitters

Place ingredients in a mixing tin with ice. Stir until well chilled and strain into a tulipped sherry glass. Garnish with a lime twist (preferably one traced with Absinthe.)

¡Salud!

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