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CINCO DE MAYO

May 2, 2015

Clare and I enjoy dining out occasionally. We make a habit of supporting locally owned businesses, restaurants included. I am convinced that when local business thrives, the community as a whole benefits.

As I write these words, we are ordering a supper of take-out food from our favorite Chinese eatery. When our children were small we made a point of celebrating Chinese New Year with Chinese food.

Our favorites for various members of our family are Thai, German, Italian, Greek, Indian, Cuban, and Middle Eastern cuisines. We enjoy, sushi, crepes, falafel, as well good old Southern cooking.

A unanimous choice for our children and grandchildren is Mexican food. How many times have I ordered kids cheese quesadillas with rice?

Cinco de Mayo, like Chinese New Year, is a day to enjoy special food. On the fifth of May many Mexican restaurants in the United States will be crowded with hungry customers.

A Bronco Mexican Restaurant is within walking distance of our home. The good folks who operate the business have become friends of ours over the years. Last week I stopped by one morning before they opened for lunch. I spoke with Maria, the manager. I specifically wanted to know about Cinco de Mayo. When I asked she smiled and explained.

The celebration of Cinco de Mayo is very different in the United States than it is in Mexico. For most Americans, the fifth of May offers an excuse to drink tequila, eat Mexican food, and party. In Mexico, though, the holiday isn’t nearly as big a cause for celebration. In the United States, Cinco de Mayo festivities can be found in a multitude of cities with large Mexican-American populations.

Maria named Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Chicago as examples. “In those places Cinco de Mayo is like a big carnival. In Mexico it is much quieter.”

Cinco de Mayo is not a federal holiday in Mexico. Mexicans don’t spend the fifth of May drinking and partying. Since it’s not actually a declared national holiday, stores, offices, and banks are all open, and many people go about their day as usual.

Many Americans have no clue what the day is about. One elderly man in my acquaintance thought Cinco de Mayo was a brand of spicy, expensive mayonnaise, something akin to Grey Poupon Dijon Mustard

Maria continued, “Americans do not understand that Cinco de Mayo is not a celebration of Mexican independence. It is not like our American Independence Day. Even if they don’t understand it, we are glad they want to celebrate. It really helps our business.”

Mexicans celebrate their independence from Spain on September 16th. This marks the day in 1810 when priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla declared war against the Spanish government with his call to arms that is known as the “Grito de Dolores” or “cry of suffering.”

Cinco de Mayo commemorates a relatively small battle. It is the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla which resulted in the unlikely victory of Mexico over France in 1862.

In 1861, the liberal Mexican Benito Juarez became president of Mexico, a country in financial ruin. He was forced to default on Mexico’s debts to European governments. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to the Mexican port city of Veracruz to demand reimbursement. Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew, but France, ruled by Napoleon III, decided to use the opportunity to carve a dependent empire out of Mexican territory.

Late in 1861, a well-armed French fleet stormed Veracruz, landing a large French force and driving President Juarez and his government into retreat. The French objective was to establish a monarchy in Mexico led by Maximilian, the Archduke of Austria.

Certain that French victory would come swiftly in Mexico, 6,000 French troops under General Charles Latrille de Lorencez set out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles, a town in central Mexico. From his new headquarters in the north, Juarez rounded up a rag-tag force of loyal men and sent them to Puebla. Led by Texas-born General Zaragoza, the 2,000 Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the French assault with a poorly trained and much smaller army.

On the fifth of May, 1862, Lorencez drew his army, well-provisioned and supported by heavy artillery, before the city of Puebla and began their assault from the north. The battle lasted from daybreak to early evening. When the French finally retreated they had lost and the Mexicans had won the day. More than 500 French soldiers were killed in the Battle of Puebla while the Mexicans lost fewer than 100 men.

Cinco de Mayo celebrates this victory. Although it was small, it demonstrated Mexico’s fierce resistance toward the French who eventually withdrew from Mexico. Victory at the Battle of Puebla represented a great moral victory for the Mexican government, symbolizing the country’s ability to defend its sovereignty against threat by a powerful foreign nation.

Several years ago Clare and I were in Nashville, Tennessee, for a long weekend. Our daughter-in-law June and our daughter Betsy were both living in Music City at the time. One of our sons affectionately referred to June and Betsy as the twin divas of Nashville. I offered to take the group out for dinner on Saturday evening. Speaking as if with one voice, June and Betsy said, “Cinco de Mayo!” It was a Mexican restaurant, and it was quite popular among their friends.

I made reservations and when we arrived I was glad I had done so. The place was packed with people and filled with the pleasing aroma of good food. We were escorted to a large booth. The menu was extensive. After we ordered we found it difficult to talk above the noise. Just as our food arrived a mariachi band started playing making their way from table to table with their songs.

When Clare and I recall that evening Bronco comes to mind.

I asked Maria what business would be like on Cinco de Mayo. “It will be a party!” she said. “We will be crowded and people will be happy.”

“Will there be music? Maybe a mariachi band?”

“No,” said Maria. Most of the mariachi bands in our area are in Greenville. We really don’t have enough room for a band, but we will certainly have music.”

“What will your customers eat?” I asked.

“Everything on the menu will be served” she said, then added, “but many people will just eat tacos. But they will drink. Dos Equis draft beer and our margaritas will be very popular.”

Clare and I will stay at home on Tuesday, but take-out is always a good possibility. She likes steak Mexicana with spinach. I enjoy pollo fundido.

Maybe you, too, would enjoy celebrating Cinco de Mayo with some good Mexican food.

And to drink? The choice is entirely yours.

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