Cinco de Mayo: What it’s all about

Wednesday is Cinco de Mayo, and while most people’s observances are centered around food and drink, an expert in Mexican culture told WTOP it’s important to remember the true origins of the holiday. She added, however, that you’re not necessarily doing it wrong.

Ix-Nic Iruegas, the executive director of the Mexican Cultural Institute, said Cinco de Mayo began as a celebration of the Battle of Puebla, in 1862, in which Mexican forces stopped the advance of the mighty French army toward Mexico City during the Second French Intervention in Mexico.

”We celebrate the victory of the Mexican army over the French army, which at the time was the most impressive and able army in the world,” Iruegas said.

The Mexicans eventually lost that war. Still, Iruegas said, the battle was important for morale “and also for the solidification of the Mexican nationality, of the idea of being Mexican.” It was an early example of Mexicans from various areas “coming together of Mexicans as a nation to fight a foreign enemy.”

The battle was commemorated immediately in Mexico, naturally, but also in California. The American Civil War was in full swing at the time, and Napoleon III, leader of the French forces, “was on the side of the Confederacy,” Iruegas said.

California had joined the U.S. with a Constitution that abolished slavery and included unprecedented rights for women, and so were “on the side of the United States, and against the Confederacy.”

Thus, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in California were of course keeping an eye on the war, “and albeit late, they did find out about the defeat of the French army by the Mexican army, and they celebrated that.”

Iruegas said the word “celebration” isn’t exactly right for Cinco de Mayo — in Mexico, at least. “In Mexico, it’s a holiday; we observe it. We’re taught about it in school. In Puebla, they have a parade, a military parade, and so on. But we don’t celebrate it.”

“We don’t get together on that day,” she added. “We don’t eat with family; we don’t drink on that day, particularly.” That’s more of an Independence Day (Sept. 15) thing, she explained. “Celebrating it is actually an American idea — a Mexican-American idea.”

That said, she stressed that the original Californian response means you’re not doing it wrong.

“There’s no ‘authentically’ about this. Because the original Cinco de Mayo celebration in the States is the authentic Cinco de Mayo celebration as well.”

“I rather think about it as a bi-national celebration,” Iruegas said. “Rather than saying ‘You’re not doing it right,’ … I would just applaud the fact that there is a Cinco de Mayo, and use that opportunity to communicate with people what it is about, and to recognize the contributions of Mexican-Americans and Hispanics.”

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2012 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He went to George Washington University as an undergraduate and is regularly surprised at the changes to the city since that faraway time.

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