On May 5, 1862, a small army of about 5,000 ill-equipped Mestizos and Zapotec Indians defeated the French army at Puebla, a small town in southern Mexico. The nearly miraculous Mexican victory temporarily stopped France’s progression toward Mexico City and its ultimate goal of an empire in Mexico. Unfortunately, the triumph was short-lived. As soon as Napoleon learned of the humiliating defeat, he deployed an additional 30,000 troops. Within a year, he'd taken over Mexico City and installed the Archduke Maximilian of Austria as ruler of the new empire.
More shocking than the outcome of the Battle of Puebla? The popularity of such a historically insignificant event in the U.S. The idea of honoring Cinco de Mayo first came about in the ’50s and was meant to function as a bridge between Mexican and American cultures in the U.S. Cinco de Mayo became a way to build pride among Chicano activists during the ’60s. In the years that followed, the unofficial holiday was commercialized, transforming it into the drinking fest we all know and love today.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably noticed what Cinco de Mayo isn’t—Mexican Independence Day. Mexico’s Independence Day is actually el Dieciseis de Septiembre, or Sept. 16. But it’s not just the history of the holiday that gets confused here. A Cinco de Mayo party would be nothing without Mexican beer, food and music—yet how much of what we think is “traditionally Mexican” is actually Mexican?
Beer—By the 19th century, many German and Irish immigrants had settled in territory that today is southern Texas. When the Mexican-American War broke out, many of these immigrants sided with Mexico and moved deeper into what is still present-day Mexico. They brought their brewing traditions with them. Before long, European techniques had a transformative influence on Mexican beer, which was traditionally corn-based instead of Europe’s barley- and wheat-based brews. Mexican beer was also greatly influenced during the short reign of Maximilian, who allegedly never traveled without his German brewmasters. So how Mexican are beers like Dos Equis and Tecate? Aside from the name, hardly. Wilhelm Hasse, co-founder of Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery and inventor of Dos Equis beer, was in fact a German immigrant, so naturally the style of his beers are European. Dos Equis Amber is a Vienna-style Amber Lager. Dos Equis Special Lager is basically a Pilsner, a pale Lager with origins in the Czech city of Pilsen. The Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery also produces Tecate, another popular pale Lager here in the U.S. The brewery itself is owned today by the Dutch brewing company Heineken International.
Tequila—Agave, also known as maguey, had been harvested by the Aztecs long before the Spanish arrived in Mexico. The Aztecs would make a drink called pulque by fermenting the sap from the maguey into alcohol. But it was the Spaniards who brought the technique of distillation from Europe and figured out how to distill the pulque into mescal. Tequila, in turn, is a specific type of mescal.
Tortillas—Tortillas are 100 percent Mexican. The Aztecs were making tortillas as far back as 10,000 years before Christ. The word tortilla itself, however, is Spanish. It comes from the Spanish word torta, which means “round cake.”
Tortilla Chips—Though tortillas are Mexican, tortilla chips are not. Their invention is credited to Rebecca Webb Carranza, who owned a tortilla factory in Los Angeles and fried the rejects.
Cilantro—Also known as coriander, cilantro was originally cultivated by the ancient Egyptians and was widely used in both Greek and Roman cultures. Though the use of cilantro can be traced back as far as 5,000 B.C., it was not introduced to the Americas until 1670 by the British.
Mariachi bands are similar to the Spanish theatrical orchestras of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, which were comprised of two violins (originally from Italy), two trumpets and a few guitars. A traditional mariachi band is made up of three violins, two trumpets, one guitar, one vihuela, one guitarrón and sometimes a harp. The vihuela and the guitarrón are really the only truly Mexican instruments used in mariachi bands. The charros the mariachis wear are traditional Mexican clothing for cowboys from the Jalisco area. The music itself came from the local folk music around Jalisco and often incorporates themes from the Mexican Revolution.
So what can we take away from this little blood-and-tequila-soaked history lesson? Well, that at the end of the day, it turns out this holiday is uniquely Mexican. Just like the country that inspired it, Cinco de Mayo sits atop a giant and fascinating heap of culture, history and nationalities. It’s a delicious stew cooked up in Mexico’s Crock-Pot of identity, poured over the crunchy corn chips of friendship and topped with the queso of inebriated mutual understanding. And so in that spirit, we’re proud to present ...
On Wednesday, May 5, join your favorite alt.weekly for Cinco de Mayo at Downtown’s Blackbird Buvette (509 Central NW, 243-0878). In addition to music and Mexican candy, we’ll be serving free Frito pie (while it lasts) from 5 to 10 p.m. on the back patio! Bring your I.D., as this party is for adults 21 and older. ¡Que viva la fiesta!