MAY 2003

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Cinco de Mayo
By Tanya Pérez-Brennan

Gladys Cortéz remembers how her father always tried to explain the meaning behind the celebration of Cinco de Mayo (the fifth of May). The whole family would sit down together and listen to his elaborate stories of the brave Mexicans who defeated the French army. He wanted them to hear the history from his lips because they were not in Mexico but on the Lower East Side.

Although mistakenly thought by many to be Mexican independence day, Cinco de Mayo is actually an anti-imperialist holiday, celebrating the defeat of the French army by the Mexicans at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.

While now observed with less fanfare in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo has become a symbol of ethnic pride for the Mexican-American community around the United States as well as here in New York City.

“There’s been a big confusion,” said Arnulfo Chino, coordinator for cultural programming at the Manhattan-based Asociacion Tepeyac, one of the main social service organizations catering to the Mexican community. “The Mexican-Americans here celebrate it with more patriotism than September 15 [Mexican independence day].”

This emphasis on Cinco de Mayo may relate to the presence in the United States of a huge population of Mexican immigrants from Puebla – something businesses have exploited in their efforts to make Cinco de Mayo the most important holiday in the Mexican community.

According to the 2000 Census, Mexicans in New York City number 187,000, making them the city’s third largest Hispanic group after Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.

Mexican immigration to the city took off in the 1980s when the Puebla region was severely affected by a financial crisis, according to Robert Smith, a Barnard College sociology professor. Mexicans from Puebla, known as poblanos, and from the Mixteca region where Puebla is located account for about two-thirds of the Mexican immigrant community in New York.

Chino, a poblano himself, said that Cinco de Mayo does hold a special meaning. “It makes me very proud and I celebrate it with even more love,” he said.

“There’s a certain distancing by those in Mexico toward those here,” said Gerry Domínguez, director of Casa México, a Mexican labor rights organization. “They don’t understand the combination of American culture with Mexican culture.”

Another dimension to the celebration here that does not exist in Mexico is the commercial aspect of promoting it.

There is sometimes fierce competition among local Mexican organizations to put on big events, Chino said. “There’s more focus on publicity to make a profit.”

Mauricio Tenorio, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, said the celebration of Cinco de Mayo evolved through its coverage in the mainstream media and through its adoption as a symbol of Mexican pride by the Chicano movement in the 1960s.

“It’s such an important date that the Mexican-Americans and Chicanos have appropriated it here because it is the only moment that Mexico defeated an imperial power,” he said.

The media took it on and erroneously portrayed it as the most important historic date in Mexico. Then came the commercialization, and the embracing of it by the Mexican-American community.

“It has nothing to do with Mexico,” Tenorio said. “It’s about the United States.”

Dolores Alcaide-Méndez, 29, a registered client associate for Merrill Lynch, was born in Mexico but grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. And although she does not remember a real awareness of the holiday as a child, she understands its symbolism and importance.

“It’s part of our identity,” she said. “We know that it’s in our blood.”

For Gladys Cortéz, Cinco de Mayo is illustrative of Mexican patriotism, no matter what the differences in its interpretation.

She said, “That’s the way of celebrating our culture—being Mexican and being proud.”

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