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April 30, 2022

Before the COVID pandemic, Clare and I enjoyed dining out occasionally. We made a practice 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 takeout food from 0ne of our favorite eateries. In midwinter when our children were small, we made a point of celebrating Lunar New Year with Asian food. Various family members enjoy Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Korean, and Chinese food. Other international favorites for our family members are French, German, Italian, Greek, Cuban, and Middle Eastern cuisine.  

We have a sign in our kitchen that reads, Eet smakelijk! It is the Dutch equivalent of Bon appétit! in French, Guten appetit! in German, Kalí óreksi! in Greek, B’tayavon! in Hebrew, Buon appetito! in Italian, Jal meokkesseumnida! in Korean, Bil hana wish shifa! in Arabic, ¡Buen provecho! in Spanish, Enjoy your meal! in proper English, or Dig in! when a plate of good old Southern cooking is put down in front of you.

The Dutch sign came from our son-in-law Jason’s grandmother, Nelvie. The expression reflects his Sikma heritage in Holland by way of Illinois. The kitchen is an appropriate place for the Dutch sign. Jay is one of the best and most adventurous cooks in our family.

As for takeout, 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 delicious food. On the fifth of May, many Mexican restaurants in the United States will be crowded with hungry customers.

A Broncos Mexican Restaurant is within easy distance of our home. The good folks who operate the business have become our friends over the years. I stopped by one morning before they opened for lunch. I specifically wanted to know about Cinco de Mayo. I spoke with Maria, the manager. 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 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 significant a cause for celebration. In the United States, Cinco de Mayo festivities can be found in many 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 most people go about their day as usual.

Many Americans have no clue what the day is about. One older 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 the sixteenth of September. This marks the day in 1810 when priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla declared war against the Spanish government with his call to arms, 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 the city of 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. Juarez rounded up a rag-tag force of loyal men from his new headquarters in the north 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 lost, and the Mexicans won the day. More than 500 French soldiers were killed in the Battle of Puebla, while the Mexicans lost fewer than 100 men.

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. Although it was small, it demonstrated Mexico’s fierce resistance toward the French, who eventually withdrew from Mexico. Cinco de Mayo celebrates this victory.

Clare and I were in Nashville, Tennessee, several years ago 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. June and Betsy said, “Cinco de Mayo!” It was a Mexican restaurant, and it was popular among their friends.

I made reservations, and I was glad I had done so when we arrived. 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. Just as our food arrived, a mariachi band started playing, making their way from table to table with their songs. After we ordered, we found it difficult to talk above the noise.

When Clare and I recall that evening, Broncos 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 undoubtedly have music.”

“What will your customers eat?” I asked.

“Everything on the menu will be served,” she said. “Many people will just eat tacos. But they will drink. Dos Equis draft beer and our margaritas will be in demand.”

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

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

 And to drink? I usually drink water, but the choice is entirely yours.

Oh. By the way. ¡Buen provecho! 

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies.  Thank you for all you have done.  I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind.  Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you.  One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need.  Please continue with your kindness and generosity.  This week, my suggestion is a little different. Consider ordering a meal, either dining in or to take out,  from a locally owned eatery. You might also think about eating at a minority-owned restaurant. There are many options across the Upstate. If we have the opportunity, let’s support our local economy. Thank you.

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