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
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.
Theres 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
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 citys 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.
Theres a certain distancing by those in Mexico toward
those here, said Gerry Domínguez, director of Casa
México, a Mexican labor rights organization. They dont
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. Theres 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.
Its 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. Its
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.
Its part of our identity, she said. We
know that its in our blood.
For Gladys Cortéz, Cinco de Mayo is illustrative of Mexican
patriotism, no matter what the differences in its interpretation.
She said, Thats the way of celebrating our culturebeing
Mexican and being proud.
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