I won’t be celebrating Cinco de Mayo this year. OK, I’ll admit it; I’ve never celebrated Cinco de Mayo. In fact, I never even heard of Cinco de Mayo growing up, despite the fact I lived in a largely Hispanic community. Now, local TV stations wish us “Happy Cinco de Mayo,” kids learn about the holiday in American public schools, cities stage festivals to celebrate it, and not a few companies use the day as an excuse to sell things, mostly beer. One clever Corona commercial features an Irish village pub getting ready for the “national” celebration, complete with sombreros.
The holiday commemorates a rather obscure event in Mexican history: the defeat of the French at the battle of Puebla in 1862. Mexico, in deep financial difficulty at the time, as it has been through much of its history, decided to stop making payments on its foreign debts, which prompted the French under Napoleon III to invade. Although Mexican troops stopped the French temporarily at Puebla, Napoleon’s forces ultimately prevailed, conquering Mexico City and installing the Emperor Maximilian, who ruled Mexico for four years.
Maybe the reason we didn’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo in Albuquerque when I was a child was because New Mexico had already been an American territory for 14 years by the time the French invaded Mexico, so the holiday had little relevance for us. We did have our ethnic celebrations, mostly Catholic feast days like that of Our Lady of Guadalupe or Santo Nino de Atocha, the latter honoring the apparition of the Child Jesus in 13th-century Islamic-ruled Spain. But when it came to national holidays, we joined in setting off fireworks and roasting hot dogs on July 4th, taking part in parades on Veteran’s Day and eating turkey on Thanksgiving Day, just like all other Americans.
So why has Cinco de Mayo become such a big deal lately? Many of the recent immigrants from Latin America aren’t even Mexican, but Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, Peruvian, Bolivian or Colombian, and they don’t have any more reason to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon III’s troops at Puebla than they do the victory over a different Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. But that won’t stop multiculturalists in the schools or politically correct politicians from jumping on the Cinco de Mayo bandwagon. So instead of encouraging newcomers to adopt American holidays as their own, we’ve now taken to persuading non-Mexican Latino immigrants to embrace a minor Mexican holiday as a sign of ethnic pride. Only in America.
I suppose Cinco de Mayo fiestas are no worse than St. Patrick’s or Columbus Day parades. Indeed, the latter might even be appropriated as a Hispanic holiday. After all, Christopher Columbus — or Cristobal Colon as he’s known in the Spanish-speaking world — is honored throughout Latin America for discovering the New World for Spain.
But here’s a better idea. Why not help newcomers learn about the history of the country they now call home? Helping Mexican and other Latino kids learn about the Battle of Lexington and Concord is certainly more important to their understanding of what it means to be an American than teaching them about Gen. Zaragoza’s victory at Puebla.
Much of the concern about immigrants today, especially those from Latin America, stems from the fear that they won’t assimilate as previous groups did. The irony is that those who think they’re being the most sensitive to immigrants are actually making it less likely that those immigrants will be accepted by encouraging them to retain their ancestral identities and foreign allegiances.
Latino leaders and immigrant advocates may be getting the message — finally. Immigrant marches over the last few weeks have featured many more American flags than those of Mexico or other Latin American countries. Sure, all those Stars and Stripes have a political purpose, but so what? Participants are not only wrapping themselves in American symbols, they’re putting in action constitutional principles: the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Now that’s something to celebrate.