Cinco de MayoTwo years ago, when we were living in Phoenix, Arizona, we celebrated Cinco de Mayo the “traditional” way – by drinking margaritas out of plastic glasses at a local student hangout. That’s just to say, there are lots of Cinco de Mayo parties in Phoenix, but most of the people attending them are not Mexican. We also noticed that middle-class Mexicans were curiously absent from the festivities. One of our friends, married to a middle class Mexican, told us: “It’s not a Mexican holiday.” Period.

Indeed, in Mexico, only the state of Puebla celebrates Cinco de Mayo, and it’s a pretty minor celebration outside of the city of  Puebla.  The date commemorates the victory of the Mexican army over the French in a battle fought on the outskirts of the city of Puebla in 1862. The Mexican victory was highly symbolic: Mexico’s army of mestizos and Indians had defeated well-equipped European forces.

But the victory was short-lived. The French were determined to get a hold on Mexico. In short, 19th century Mexico was one long struggle between between Criollos, mestizos and Indios to fill the power vacuum after Spanish colonial rule. With the support of Mexico’s upper classes and conservatives, the French aimed to set up a puppet regime in Mexico and put the country’s ruling classes in charge. Although the Pueblans defeated them in 1862, the French struck back and won the next battle in 1863. Then they put an Austrian archduke on the throne, and he ruled Mexico as Maximilian I for 3 years. His descendants consider themselves claimants to the Mexican throne to this day…

But that’s not why Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo today.

In the United States, Cinco de Mayo symbolized something completely different: the unity of Latino immigrants.

This is how it started: Californians of Mexican origin began celebrating Cinco de Mayo at the end of the 1860s. In the 1940s, picked it up, but it remained an obscure Mexican-American holiday for decades.  In the 1970s, the Latin American community in San Francisco turned Cinco de Mayo into a pan-ethnic U.S. celebration for Hispanic immigrants of all national origins.

It was a savvy choice. Most Latin Americans, even Mexicans, had never heard of the holiday, so it didn’t pit different nationalities against one another. In the long run, Cinco de Mayo was also helped by the fact that it had no religious associations, a handy feature since 15% of Hispanics in the U.S. today are evangelical Christians, not Catholics.

Over the last decade, Cinco de Mayo celebrations have gotten steadily more popular and more mainstream. Beer and alcohol companies have cashed in on this new American “tradition,” and made Cinco de Mayo into a mainstay of American popular culture.

Today, some 150 official Cinco de Mayo celebrations take place throughout the country. In 2005 the two Chambers of the U.S. Congress issued a joint resolution calling for the President to make Cinco de Mayo an official U.S. celebration, but it is not a federal holiday.

However, since Latino political and commercial clout has also been increasing steadily over the last decades, who knows? Maybe Cinco de Mayo will become an official U.S. holiday some day.

¡ Wishing you a happy Cinco de Mayo !