It’s a victory celebration each Cinco de Mayo, fifth of May in more places each year. Mexican in origin, the holiday is now celebrated on a larger scale in the United States. Culturally, “It’s sort of like St. Patrick’s Day,” says Pete Hamill, a Brooklyn-born author who lives in Mexico and New York. “Food is the way Americans start to experience other cultures,” says Hamill. “It started with Italian; then Americans discovered some Jewish and German foods. Now it’s Mexican.”
“Mexico’s presence has been growing in California, Texas and New York for years, but this growth is true now in all states. Andrew Erlich, head of the market research firm, Erlich Transcultural Consultant. “We’re talking about something deeper now, from lifestyle to food to dance and music.”
A popular misunderstanding is that Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexican independence day. However, this holiday honors a lesser battle, but nonetheless an important moral victory day, when the Mexican army miraculously defeated Napoleon III’s troops in the Battle of Puebla, over 135 years ago.
The Mexican army could to no wrong on that day in 1862. During France’s occupation of Mexico, their soldiers set out from Vera Cruz to storm Mexico City. When they arrived at Puebla, 100 miles east of the city, humiliation fell upon them. Out-numbered two to one, the tattered, ill-clad, ill-trained, ill-fortuned Mexican army incredibly toppled the famed and highly-reputed French army valiantly led by the gallant and noble Napoleon III. His army had not been defeated in 50 years! So, on Cinco de Mayo each year Mexicans celebrate the day they could so no wrong.
HOW TO CELEBRATE:
Beyond the battle enactments, the cultural excitement expresses itself with: Folklorico presentations, joyful mariachi music, loaded piñatas, suspenseful bull fights, scrappy cock fights, games, singing, street dancing, costumes, carnival rides, food stands and here and there strains of the Mexican Hat Dance. Mexican fun times charm North American people, let us examine the ways:
More of a North American twist is gulping down marguirita cocktails with corn chips laden with luscious guacamole and snappy salsas. This drink helped establish the Mexican tourist industry once they extracted aguamiel from the agave cactus and made it into tequila. It, mixed with lime juice and orange liqueur, has knocked the socks off of many touristos.
Find recipes for throwing your own Cinco de Mayo party at: http://www.epicurious.com/b_ba/b02_menus/mexican.html.
THE BALLET FOLKLORICO:
This is usually a performance by dancers plus music and scenery suggestive of old Mexico. Participants act out in dance the traditions, legends and customs their native culture with loud enthusiasm.
The lilt to mariachi music is infectious. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in the early 1500s, they discovered the the Aztecs and Indian were playing it for their own enjoyment. The term refers to one or a group of musicians, usually seven to nine of them.
Each band is made up of violins, trumpets, guitars and two distinctive stringed instruments, the vihuela and the guitarron. The latter makes a “plinking” sound when two of its strings are plucked at one time. Mariachi musicians are costumed like troubadours in large sombreros, short jacket and snug trousers with shiny buttons. During the music, squeals peal out called “gritos” at appropriate times. No mariachi music is complete without these.
Rather like a Mexican Christmas stocking, the piñata is a 16th century Italian renaissance custom handed down to the Mexican culture. A typical piñata is made of paper mache or cardboard trimmed with bright tissue papers and sometimes made to look like an animal or other carnival figure. Each is filled with trinkets and candy, hung from a line for blindfolded children to poke and batter with a stick until the piñata falls from the line spewing its treasures on the ground. Then the children scramble for their treats.
Like the theatrics on North America’s Fourth of July, the typical Cinco de Mayo finale is fuegos artificiales or fireworks whose loose translation is “fire, artificial!”