3:45am

Fri May 2, 2014
U.S.

Cinco De Mayo: Whose Holiday Is It, Anyway?

Originally published on Tue May 6, 2014 11:38 am

Across the country this weekend, Cinco de Mayo will be celebrated with festivals, music, Mexican food and plenty of bar specials.

But south of the border, the holiday merits little more than a parade in the city of Puebla, east of Mexico City. There, in 1862, outgunned Mexican troops defeated an invading French army.

Lesley Tellez writes about Mexican food and culture for The Mija Chronicles online. She says that when she moved from Southern California to Mexico City, she looked forward to Cinco de Mayo. But she was the only one looking for a party.


Interview Highlights

On her first Cinco de Mayo in Mexico City

I was ... waiting for this groundswell of something to start happening in Mexico City, and nothing ever happened! The day came and the day went.

On the origins of the holiday

It does commemorate the battle of Puebla, in which the Mexican troops were victorious over the French troops, and that's really important — in Puebla. Not really anywhere else outside of Puebla.

Mexico had put a moratorium on paying back their European debts. They basically had no money. The French wanted to get their money from Mexico, so they sent troops and they fought a battle in Puebla versus what was supposed to be a ... vastly underprepared army. ... But the Mexican troops ended up winning the battle ... and it was great. But they didn't end up winning the war, overall. They lost. But at a time, it was really a rallying cry for Mexican resistance.

On Cinco de Mayo in America

There's a couple of different stories. One is that it was homesick Mexicans that were looking for a way to celebrate their heritage. And I've also read that it was Mexicans who were living in the U.S. and wanting to identify with Mexico around the time of the [Mexican] Civil War and wanting to support what had happened in Mexico.

On making peace with Cinco de Mayo

I really view it today as a Mexican-American holiday, even though, yeah, you know, it is tied to beer and margaritas a lot of the time. I do think you could use it as a point of reflection about your own identity as a Mexican-American person. Thinking about contributions Mexican-Americans have made to the U.S., our food, really reveling in what our culture brings to the table in the U.S. I think it is a great day to do that.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Across the United States this weekend, Cinco de Mayo will be celebrated with festivals, music, plenty of Mexican food, maybe a few margaritas. It's the closest weekend to May 5th, a day to remember a battle in Mexico that took place on May 5th, 1862, but this Mexican holiday, celebrated in America, is not such a big deal in Mexico.

Lesley Tellez, who writes about Mexican food and culture for The Mija Chronicles, had a culture shock. That shock came when she moved from Southern California, where she'd always celebrated Cinco de Mayo, to Mexico City. She told David Greene that in Mexico City she was about the only one celebrating.

LESLEY TELLEZ: I was waiting for this groundswell of something to start happening in Mexico City, and...

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: A big party to go to, yeah.

TELLEZ: Exactly. And nothing ever happened. The day came and the day went.

GREENE: OK. And this led you to sort of do some research into the holiday and its history in Mexico.

TELLEZ: Yeah. It does commemorate the battle of Puebla, in which the Mexican troops were victorious over French troops, and that's very important - in Puebla. Not really anywhere else.

GREENE: It's important in this one part of Mexico.

TELLEZ: Correct. The French army at the time was bound to be a much better equipped army but Mexican troops ended up winning the battle.

GREENE: It's kind of a David and Goliath moment for Mexico.

TELLEZ: It was great but they didn't end up winning the war, overall. They lost. But at the time, it was really a rallying cry, I think, for Mexican resistance. And the American celebration was started in California by Mexicans who were living there. So it wasn't any sort of Mexican celebration that was so large and eventually just trickled into the U.S. That didn't happen.

GREENE: So now that you know that Mexico doesn't celebrate it as a big holiday and it's sort of an American thing, do you think that Americans should sort of just let go of it or is there something that Americans could sort of use this moment for?

TELLEZ: I really view it today as a Mexican-American holiday, even though, yeah, you know, it is tied to beer and margaritas a lot of the time. I do think you could use it as a point of reflection about your own, you know, identity as a Mexican-American person.

I think thinking about contributions that Mexican-Americans have made to the U.S., our food, really reveling in what our culture brings to the table in the U.S., I think it is a great day to do that.

GREENE: And there are some roots, as you say, to this battle of Puebla which is where the May 5th comes from.

TELLEZ: Sure.

GREENE: Tell me about Puebla. Where is that in Mexico, and what is it like?

TELLEZ: So you go up over these gorgeous mountains east of Mexico City, then you end up in Puebla which is a really charming Colonial Spanish city. So you still see, today, a lot of this really beautiful colonial architecture. And the colonial flavor is also still reflected in the food. All sorts of types of these really kind of baroque sauces.

Mole poblano which is the really famous chocolate and dried chili sauce...

GREENE: Yeah. It's delicious.

TELLEZ: ...that most Americans know of - yes - was invented there.

GREENE: So maybe less partying and drinking, a little more mole, a little reflection. So I will say Happy Cinco de Mayo.

TELLEZ: All right. You too. Thanks.

GREENE: Lesley, thanks so much for coming on the program.

TELLEZ: Thanks for having me.

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INSKEEP: Lesley Tellez splits her time between New York and Mexico City and she is the creator of the food and travel blog The Mija Chronicles. We're glad you spent this morning with us on your public radio station. Remember, we're with you throughout the day. We're on social media. And as you're preparing to go out partying tonight, you can tune in to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED to get the latest news.

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INSKEEP: Estos es NPR Noticias.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.