In this special guest feature, radioplamsa host and NEPM Media Lab Director Iohann Rashi Vega talks about Cinco de Mayo. Rashi Vega, who was born and raised in Mexico City, reflects on the true meaning and historical context of the holiday.

Do you celebrate Cinco de Mayo? Do you know what it means? On this random session, you’ll know the origins of this Mexican historical event and its meaning in the United States. Celebrate Cinco de Mayo by embracing the true Mexican Culture, by breaking stereotypes, and supporting local authentic Mexican businesses.

Listen to this episode of radioplasma:


Read the full transcript:

Iohann Rashi Vega, radioplasma Host: There is no guest, but there is a topic: Cinco de Mayo. Three words that immediately many of us associate with sombreros tacos, tequila, margaritas, mustaches, burritos, guacamole… Mexico.

Definitely, is more than that. And how do I know? Well, I’m Mexican. Yeah, one of those, born and raised in Mexico. Mexico City.

So I’m actually a “Chilango” a term utilized by people in any other place in the country but Mexico City, to refer to the people from the city, usually in a kind of a disrespective way.

But let’s talk about Cinco de Mayo. What is it? But most importantly, What it’s not?

First of all, let’s clarify. It is not Mexico’s Independence Day. That is on September 16th. Actually, it begins on the 15th at night, because the way it is celebrated in Mexico begins the night of the 15th around 11pm. And then, the 16th is the official day observed for the independence.

But that’s a topic of conversation for another time.

Once we clarified Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. What is it? It’s a date that is remembered in Puebla because that’s the place where during the Franco-Mexican War, it took place a battle against the French army in 1862

. How this began?

Around 1861, Mexico was in trouble and financial problems after several years of internal struggle. And then, President Benito Juarez, he was forced to default on debt payments to some European governments. As you could expect, this created tension, and those countries were not happy.

So they sent their forces to Mexico, to the port of Veracruz, demanding to be paid. Those countries where France, Britain and Spain. At some point, Britain and Spain reached an agreement with Mexico and they withdrew their forces.

France, however, decided to use this opportunity to set up an empire in Mexico, and then a French fleet stormed Veracruz, forcing Mexican forces to retreat. In order to take Mexico City, French forces needed to move from Veracruz to the west, going through the smallest state in Mexico, which is Tlaxcala, and next was Puebla. After Puebla, it comes the area of the Valley of Mexico City.

So when the French reached the city of Puebla, President Juarez, rounded a force of approximately 4,000 men, many of them from the indigenous communities, others from mixed ancestry. And all of them were sent to Puebla to fight under the orders of General Ignacio Zaragoza. He fortified the town and got prepared this outnumbered resistance force for this battle that took place on May 5th, 1862. May 5th, Cinco de Mayo.

The French army lost a significant number of soldiers compared to the Mexicans being highly outnumbered. So even though this was not a big win in the overall war, Zaragoza’s success at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, represents a great symbolic victory for the Mexican government and the Mexican people.

Now, let’s remember that at the same time, the United States had its own trouble with the Civil War. Around the time many Mexican people were living in what now are the states of the South. We’re talking about California, and Texas (well, better said, Tejas). So you can imagine the reaction of the Mexican people getting the news about the victory of General Zaragoza in Puebla against the French.

This news sparked a celebration by the Mexican community in the north. That could be considered the origins of celebrating Cinco de Mayo, from the times of the Civil War, and every year, after it happened.

As a matter of fact, the first registry in existence about the celebration of Cinco de Mayo, it is a note from the Columbia newspaper, dated May 8th of 1862. And this is a small community of North California, telling how Mexican people living in this region made a big celebration when the news arrived, three days after of the defeat of the French army in Puebla.

Now, if we move in time to the 1960s and 70s, then we can talk a little bit about the Chicano movements in the United States. Several Mexican-American activists, reclaimed Cinco de Mayo as a symbol of ethnic identity, a day to celebrate the presence or influence of their heritage and their contributions to the community as a way to recognize the strong presence of the Mexican people in the United States, especially in areas like California and Texas.

Utilizing the memory of how the Mexican community celebrated Cinco de Mayo because of the Battle of Puebla, this became the new date to celebrate and recognize the identity of Mexican community in the United States. And then, “thanks” to marketing, and thanks to stereotypes as well, Cinco de Mayo became a date of celebration and to promote all possible consumption of Mexican products, particularly tequila or beer.

There’s so much to appreciate and enjoy in this celebration. The music, food, traditions, dances, and activities of the everyday life in Mexico, become more present in the culture of the United States. So, Cinco de Mayo, it is definitely an important celebration in the United States.

But what about in Mexico? Basically is just one more day, a regular day like any other. The only place that makes a big celebration, is the city of Puebla where the battle took place in 1862. Other than that, is just a regular day like any other. People do not change their lives or go crazy celebrating. I mean, not more than the usual type of celebration you could have in Mexico every weekend, of course.

But Cinco de Mayo, it is certainly a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, in the United States. So, with this, as a Mexican, I love any opportunity to celebrate and to share about my culture, my traditions, with everybody. And also to take this opportunity to clarify what Cinco de Mayo is and what is not.

About the stereotypes, is just the consequence of how marketing just takes whatever it cares for in order to make profit. So, I see this as an opportunity to share again, and to educate whoever would like to know a little bit more about what Mexican culture is about, and a little bit of history, and many of the connections that exist between United States and Mexico in all aspects.

We are literally part of each other. Because Mexican territory became part of the United States. Both of our cultures are so tied and so connected in many aspects that that is like if we are not only neighbors, but family.

If you plan to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, especially if it is on a weekend, try to go beyond the burrito, the margarita, the poncho and the sombrero.

And if you have the chance to talk to someone who is Mexican, ask questions. I can assure you, any Mexican will be glad to share with you, and if you have the opportunity, try something new or something different that you haven’t yet about Mexican food, or Mexican music, or a Mexican drink.

Because it’s not about tequila and beer. You can try other things like Mezcal if you’re done adventurous, and that is the one that comes with a worm, by the way.

I hope this gives you a little bit of additional information about what Cinco de Mayo is, and thank you for embracing Mexican culture and celebrate it. Let’s celebrate together.