POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Viva Mexico!

by David Trumbull -- May 4, 2012

Congress wanted to commemorate the holiday Cinco de Mayo, but they could not agree on the date.
--Humorist Mark Russell at the 2011 Robert Benchley Society Annual Awards Dinner.

All joking aside, congress could be forgiven for being confused about Cinco de Mayo. Often mistaken, in America, for Mexico's Fourth of July (Mexico's Independence Day is, in fact, celebrated on September 16th), it commemorates the Battle of Puebla, where, in 1862, about 4,000 poorly equipped Mexican soldiers defeated an invading French army of twice that size. It isn't a big holiday in most of Mexico, rather it is local to the City of Puebla in central Mexico.

In other words, Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican equivalent to Bunker Hill Day or perhaps Patriots' Day, a local celebration of a local battle that had national importance.

Cinco de Mayo is now observed throughout the U.S., where it is a much bigger holiday than it is in Mexico. Some U.S. celebrations now extend to honoring Hispanic ancestry and culture of all origins -- North American, Central American, South American, and Caribbean -- not solely Mexican.

American love of Mexican cuisine and of the distinctly Mexican liquor, Tequila, has helped spread enjoyment of Cinco de Mayo, as has, frankly, the commercial interest of food and beverage vendors. Never one to pass on an excuse for a party, I'll be celebrating Cinco de Mayo, although perhaps with Bourbon rather than Tequila, the 5th falling on the first Saturday in May, which makes it Kentucky Derby Day.

The Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862, may have been as significant for American history as it was for Mexico. It was during the American Civil War and many historians believe that France was on the verge coming to the aid of the Southern Confederates. The French defeat at Puebla put an end to such plans, if any. Who knows, had Mexico not defeated the French that day the United States might be several States fewer today. That's if the Union survived at all after a Civil War with foreign involvement. So, perhaps it is fitting that Cinco de Mayo is bigger holiday north of the border -- Viva Mexico!