Friday, May 04, 2007

Sink O’ de Mayonnaise

Ask anyone, and nobody can tell you what Cinco de Mayo is all about. It’s a Mexican holiday, but they don’t celebrate it everywhere in Mexico… and the name has a tone of importance, as if to say that Cinco de Mayo needs no explanation, unlike Arbor Day or Memorial Day, but the obviousness should resonate through you by mere mention of the date. Cinco de Mayo, like the Fourth of July. The uninformed will tell you it is sort of a Mexican Independence Day and that’s all they’ll tell you, comparing it to the Fourth of July, and the really ignorant will tell you that it is The Mexican Independence Day…the day Mexico became independent (which is actually in September). At least that’s the guise for when the sales of XX, Pacifico and Corona go through the roof this weekend.

Much like nobody really knows what St. Patrick’s Day is or Valentine’s Day… or Halloween for that matter, Cinco de Mayo is one of those obscure celebrations relegated to a day to drink beer and not ask too many questions. But why?

Is asking “why?” like asking why Mexican celebrations center around beer the same way a fraternity party centers around beer or the same way you can’t tailgate before the game without beer? Perhaps, but what bugs me is that people refuse to learn the history of an event they’re celebrating only because the excuse to imbibe during the celebration outweighs any need for an education (or the swelling of pride associated with that education).

Wouldn’t it mean more if you knew why the desire to knock down a case of beer is so strong on the fifth day of May? For a lot of people who are drunk by noon on the fifth, probably not, and since I’m not Mexican (and I don’t plan to be), I’m about as interested in Cinco De Mayo as I am in Independence Day for Paraguay (May 14), Republic Day for South Africa (May 31) and Victory over Fascism Day for the Commonwealth of Independent States (May 9).

But the funny thing about all of those other holidays is that they are actual dates that signify the end of a conflict with overpowering tyrants, whereas Cinco de Mayo marks the culmination of a failed battle to oust the French in 1862. Ironically, the French and the Mexicans were in peace talks when some French general began to pull his troops out from an area around Puebla (where New Beetles now come from). He compassionately left a host of sick troops behind to fend for themselves, which the Mexicans misunderstood to be remaining hostile combatants and treated them accordingly. What’s accordingly in a time of battle? The Mexicans lodged a complaint with the French general, who instead of apologizing for the misunderstanding and removing his troops, took it as the first step by the Mexicans to finish off his sick men. So, long story short, instead of continuing to withdraw, he decided to attack Puebla. When the fourth attack was beaten back by the determined Mexicans (and don’t be fooled by the folklore. The Mexicans weren’t a rag-tag collection of poor peasants with pitchforks and moxie. They were a well disciplined force, though small in number), Napoleon threw 29,000 men into the battle, and Puebla fell. Mexico was soon occupied by the French. Mon dui.

Much like the Alamo 30 years earlier, the Battle of Puebla became a moral victory that boosted morale and helped fortify the determination of the Mexicans to completely drive out the French… although five years later in 1867, well after the French had completely taken over the country. You’d think they’d want to celebrate that day instead, but they don’t.

What is most interesting is that Mexico isn’t really interested in celebrating Cinco de Mayo either. It was first thought of a year after the battle by the then governor of the territory, but largely forgotten and widely left uncelebrated as a cultural identity until the 1970s. It was akin to V-E Day or V-J Day, recognized by those in the know, but not a source of national pride.

In the 1960s and 70s, the most popular beer among Hispanics during that time was Coors and Budweiser, which makes sense because it was cheap and readily available in the western states where most Hispanics in this country live. However, Coors had some multi-cultural problems in hiring a racial diverse crew in its breweries (read: its managers and owners were devote racists and possibly Klansmen), so a Hispanic rights activist group enacted a boycott of Coors products until they changed their tune.

Since Coors was enjoying a large market share of the Hispanic beer drinkers and didn’t want to lose the ground they had on Budweiser, they decided to update their image and increase their sponsorship of Hispanic events. Were there Hispanic cultural events in this country especially noteworthy at the time? No, not really, but May had always been a slow month for beer sales (the insanity of Memorial Weekend hadn’t yet reached a crescendo of debauchery), so they attacked their marketing teams on the project and started backing a lesser known reason to celebrate, an relatively obscure date the Mexicans were calling Cinco de Mayo, a day that, up until then, had no acclaim to any popularity or reputation.

The rest, as they say, is beer swilling history (If you’re curious, no, it didn’t entirely solve the boycott issue for another 10 years or so, but the college kids looking for another reason to drink, well made up for it). Over the years, Cinco de Mayo reached a cult level of cultural status unsurpassed by any other day of drinking, save for St. Patrick’s Day (incidentally another day’s history lost at the bottom of bottle of beer).

If you want to see an “official” history of the holiday from what I would assume should be a credible source, take a look at this from, and how it stretches itself to insinuate that the United States should thank the Mexicans for keeping out the French during the Civil War, (Napoleon was planning on using Mexico as a base to help the Confederates)… and it gives a questionable reason that Americans should embrace Cinco de Mayo as an American holiday. In an article I read about Cinco de Mayo, it said: “In neighborhoods such as East Los Angeles, the Mission District of San Francisco, East San Jose and elsewhere throughout the Southwest, Cinco de Mayo is most accurately characterized as a day of celebration to honor a culture that fuses Mexican heritage and American life experience.”

However, I’m going to have to disagree when it comes to this fusing of Mexican heritage and American experiences. Cinco de Mayo is no more related to America than Canada’s Boxing Day or England’s Guy Fawkes Day, and it is being used as another attempt to highjack what is left of the American culture, pushing the borders of Latin America further northward. I’m sure the Mexicans didn’t want the French occupying their country as much as we wouldn’t want them in ours during that time, but if Napoleon said he was just passing through Mexico on his way to Jefferson Davis’s side, I’m sure the Mexicans, fresh from having their hats handed to them on their way out of Texas and California a few years earlier, would have let them by with an indifferent via con Dios, Frenchy. To insinuate that Americans should be grateful to the Mexicans for stopping the French 140 years ago is in the same misunderstood line of thinking that the blacks should be thankful to the Colonists for bringing them here from Africa. That’s just backward reasoning, conforming history to meet the needs of current events.

On the other hand, it is too bad Mexicans don’t celebrate The Pastry War, an entirely different conflict in the 1820s, also with the French, that attributed up to Mexico’s occupation in 1863. At least we could have creative pastries and not just a bunch of beer and drunk idiots partying for reasons most don’t even know. Educate the brain cells, amigos, before you start killing them.

On the other side, just to be obstinate, I’m going to start celebrating the Second of February. I’m going to host a party and get drunk and shoot guns in the air, making some whooping sounds while I do it… maybe wear a funny hat. Why? The Second of February signifies the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 and the glorious independence of most of the southwest, including my home state. Viva Dos de Febrero!

Now, where’s my Lone Star beer! No, wait, I’ll save that for Third of March celebrations. Remember the Alamo?…which nobody does anymore, because the day isn’t backed by a giant brewery in a political attempt to curry favor with an ailing cultural market of beer drinkers and cater to the cultural denominators that is strangling everything around it. Bitter, me? No, but that's a post for another time.

If only Texans drank less and had a reason to feel slighted by The Man.

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