Eating the World

Why Cinco de Mayo Is No Holiday in Minervaland

Dear 5th of May:

We were never together and I never cared about you, but now we're officially over; you were, after all, never that important to me when I lived in Mexico.

It's not like you have ever been a national holiday celebrated with closed banks and schools, paper flower-adorned floats floating down crowded and festive streets throughout the republic, and pigtailed little girls in folk costume waving the Mexican flag while stomping on the French flag . . . Wait, what? No one likes the French and all, but that seems like an extreme non?

It will all make sense in a minute.

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Perhaps instead of breaking up with the day itself, I should break up with the masterminds behind the massive Cinco de Mayo, a.k.a. Cinco de Drinko, advertising campaign.

They left out the part about government debt, a French invasion of Mexico and resulting war, an aristocratic Austrian naval officer becoming emperor of Mexico, his execution, and all the other sexy historic bits. And about how not many people in Mexico outside of the state of Puebla actually give a Chihuahua's behind about any of this.

Call it the Mexican equivalent of the War of 1812. You know about it, you may sort of know why it happened, but you just don't care. The 5th of May is not Mexico's Independence Day, or Mexican Heritage Day, and thinking of it as such is like thinking of it as mole poblano as a chocolate sauce: A complex chile sauce with anywhere from 20 to 30 ingredients, and just one of them is chocolate or cacao. And you want to call it a chocolate sauce? Try putting it on an ice cream sundae, and then call it a chocolate sauce.

Breaking it down to the very essentials, the fifth of May comes down to this:

After 300 years of Spanish rule, developing a stable Mexican government was turbulent and expensive, resulting in the Reform War, or civil war, and a lot of foreign debt. President Benito Juárez, his fledgling government unable to pay, suspended payments on foreign debts, namely to the French, Spanish and British. In December 1861, military forces from all three showed up in the port city of Veracruz to collect on what was owed to them, but only the French were angry enough -- but the French are always angry, aren't they? -- to push past the coastline, or maybe they decided to stay in Veracruz for the fantastic seafood, and Napoleon III's troops made a march towards Mexico City to devour it whole like a crusty on the outside fluffy and soft on the inside baguette.

On May 5, 1862, a well-armed French contingency was met in Puebla by a smaller and ill-equipped Mexican armed forces, and for one battle in this war of invasion, on the day that came to be known as Dia de la Batalla de Puebla, or Day of the Battle of Puebla, were crushed and left deflated like a fallen chocolate soufflé. Quelle domage...

Anyway, the French still won the war a year later, after the arrival of additional troops, and a second battle at Puebla on May 17, 1863 (but we don't celebrate this day, do we?) and with the aid of some of the conniving elite of Mexico who for some reason preferred monarchs over presidents, France installed Austrian Archduke Ferdinando Maximiliano José María of Habsburg, let's just call him Max I for short.

The heavily bearded and highly decorated naval officer is considered to have been a progressive, loyal and liberal ruler who loved Mexico and it's people, and also a stubborn and short sighted imperialist. Max I met a firing squad on the 19th of June of 1867, and the Second Mexican Empire came to a bloody end.

And you thought the 5th of May was about going on a Corona binge.

I would much rather think of it as a day in which if I just so happen to come across a French person, I will point and laugh for just one second, before continuing to grumble about the Cinco de Drinko signs all around me. Let's take the "We love Mexico and Mexican culture!" sentiments displayed on the 5th of May and move them to September 16th, the actual Mexican Independence Day.

As proprietor of Muñeca Mexicana handcrafted food, Minerva Orduño Rincón makes everything from mole poblano to goat milk caramel to spiced (not spicy) cocoa. Find her at a farmers market near you.

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Minerva Orduño Rincón