Educate yourself before you pass the seven-layer dip
Whoo-hoo! It’s Cinco de Mayo, that time-honored tradition commemorating Mexico’s Independence Day, when we join with our geographic neighbors south of the border for festive celebrations of this pivotal day in Mexican history ... right?
In America, most of us don’t know the true origins of Cinco de Mayo, but let’s face it — anytime there is an excuse to indulge in adulterated ethnic cuisines, Americans take it.
To the people of the Emerald Isle, green beer and corned beef are about as Irish as Lucky Charms, but Americans gobble the stuff on St. Paddy’s Day. In China, you can’t find fortune cookies, egg rolls, orange chicken and cardboard take-out containers with red pagodas printed on the sides, but Chinese take-out night in America is no fun without these ethnic treats. Why stomach the sauce-disguised organ meats of real French cuisine, when you can just grab a croissant and a Diet Coke at Au Bon Pain and still feel fancy? We don’t really care that no one in Italy eats spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine Alfredo with chicken, unlimited breadsticks and bottomless salad bowls because, in America, “That’s Italian!”
Americans are so intent on bastardizing ethnic cuisines, we even do it to ourselves. On Thanksgiving Day, we don’t eat the gamey venison, goose and clams that our Pilgrim and Wampanoag predecessors served with their wild turkeys. Instead, we supplement our Butterballs with green bean casseroles topped with french-fried onions, canned yams layered with mini-marshmallows and chocolate chip pumpkin cheesecakes slathered with nondairy Cool Whip.
Perhaps our huge American egos and unfettered ethnocentricity has brought us to this, but should we be condemned for making our own fun?
More than a decade ago, I was invited to a friend’s Cinco de Mayo party when our family was stationed in Virginia Beach, Va. The hosts were a Navy pilot and his wife, who threw great parties. They rented a frozen margarita machine, set up their karaoke machine and a dance floor complete with chili pepper lights in their garage, served a complete buffet of Mexican foods such as jalapeno poppers and seven-layer bean dip, and passed around lime and tequila Jell-O shots.
At the time, I had no idea what Cinco de Mayo history was, but I had a blast celebrating it nonetheless. I even brought along our 86-year-old houseguest, Mabel, who was visiting from England, where we had been stationed several years before. There she sat on a folding chair in the garage, tapping her cane to the beat of “La Bamba,” munching chips and salsa from a sombrero-shaped platter. As an Englishwoman, she knew even less about Mexican history than we did, but as long as the queso dip and tequila were flowing, ignorance was bliss.
Actually, in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is a relatively minor blip on the calendar. It originates from the one-day Franco-Mexican War Battle of Puebla in 1862 in the small town in east-central Mexico, when a thrown-together army of poorly supplied and outnumbered locals defended the town against an attack by 6,000 French troops. This was not a strategic win for beleaguered Mexico — the French didn’t withdraw until 1967 — but the courageous victory made the history books nonetheless. The event is virtually ignored in Mexico, limited mostly to the area where the battle took place.
However, according to a study at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, Mexican-Americans in Southern California began celebrating Cinco de Mayo as early as 1863, when it became a way to bind Latinos and other Californians together in a collective identity. The history of Cinco de Mayo has been lost, according to researchers. “We remember it is important, but we don’t remember why.”
So, before you embarrass yourself while under the influence of too much tequila at a party on May 5, just remember: Cinco de Mayo has become a celebration of Latino-American culture. It is not Mexican Independence Day, which happened on Sept. 16, 1810, and involved the Spanish, not the French.