Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Real Cinco de Mayo

Seattle Times: It's Cinco de Mayo on Thursday. Perhaps you're heading to a local pub to munch on tacos and throw back salt-rimmed margaritas. But do you know the history behind the party?

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the day in 1862 when the Mexican army fought back and defeated the French army in a David-and-Goliath-like battle.

That year, Napoleon III invaded Mexico to collect money owed France. Historians say Napoleon really wanted to take over his enemy, the United States. President Lincoln was busy with the Civil War and did not get involved in the ensuing fight near Mexico City.

The Battle of Puebla lasted two hours. The Mexican army, led by Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza, was 4,000 strong. The troops wielded machetes and ingenuity to defeat Napoleon's better-equipped force of 8,000 soldiers, so the story goes.

For Mexican-Americans, who make up 10 percent of the nation's population, Cinco de Mayo is a holiday that stokes national pride.

Many Americans mistakenly believe the holiday is Mexico's Independence Day. Actually, that falls on Sept. 16, when Mexico pays homage to Miguel Hidalgo y Castilla, a Catholic priest who tolled his church bell in 1810 to proclaim the country's freedom from Spain.

Unlike Mexico's Independence event, May 5 is not a big deal south of the border, save for the state of Puebla, where festivals and parades are common.

The first Cinco de Mayo celebration was in California in 1863. But the holiday didn't really take off in the United States until the 1960s. Cinco de Mayo saw a boost in popularity in the 1980s, partly fueled by Mexican beer and tequila firms pumping up the event as another St. Patrick's Day, historians say.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has taken note, coining the slogan "Amigos don't let amigos drive drunk." They also warned in an advertisement: "Drive impaired on Cinco de Mayo and spend seis de Mayo in jail."

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