Public History Presentations: Latino Communities in Southern California

Nichol Roe: Spring 2013: History 538: CSUSM

Critique

CdM 1

Fiesta Old Town Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo celebrations have become national festivals throughout America, especially in the South West. As the number of festivals increase, it leads us to question the importance of these events as well as the effects these festivals have on local communities. Cinco de Mayo celebrations are well known, yet many claim the true meaning of the celebration is often lost. While the true meaning may be misconstrued, the annual festivals are typically intended to promote Mexican culture and heritage as well as commemorate an historic event.

In James Loewen’s book Lies Across America, he discussed various historic sites throughout America that promote an inaccurate public history. He argued that most public history sites tell stories that are favorable to the local community and more specifically, only remember the positive aspects of a history.  He also stated that guides who work at historical sites avoid, and are many times required to omit, any negative or controversial facts.  He argued that this is damaging to communities because the public will believe these stories as truth, even though they are incorrect. While these stories may be incorrect, he argued that these sites are created to “hold a society together, providing a shared community heritage,” and it is this shared heritage that the community can take pride.

While Cinco de Mayo celebrations may not seem to fit into the category of public history, these celebrations highlight the same aspects Loewen discussed in his book. The celebrations are often intended to instill a sense of pride within the Mexican American community, as well as provide the opportunity for the public to engage and accept the rich, Mexican American culture. These celebrations are supposedly commemorations of an important event in Mexican history, and the United States has recently begun to embrace these celebrations.

May 5, 1862 is commemorated in both the United States and Mexico for its significance. It was on this day, that the army of Napoleon III was attacked while enroute to Mexico City by Mexican troops under the lead of General Ignacio Zaragoza. The French Army was one of the strongest in the world, and the Mexican troops were an unlikely victor.  While this event, known as La Batalla de Puebla, was not the end to the French occupation in Mexico, it is commemorated for the bravery and courage that the Mexican troops demonstrated. This day has become a national holiday in Mexico and has grown to a much larger event within the United States.

Many scholars have researched the differences between celebrations in Mexico and the United States. They have clarified that in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is mainly a civil holiday, similar to Labor Day or Memorial Day within the United States. Very few celebrations are held and those that are, are limited to the Puebla and Mexico City areas. Brian Greene stated in his article for US News, that Cinco de Mayo is actually only “celebrated in one of Mexico’s 31 states.” The largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in Mexico consists of an annual reenactment of the battle. However in the United States, Cinco de Mayo is a much more popular event and these celebrations are held in the form of festivals nationwide. Typically lasting two or three days, these celebrations involve various aspects of Mexican American culture. Often providing little historical background, the United States commemorations of Cinco de Mayo have become more about highlighting a Mexican ethnic identity, rather than celebrating the battle itself.

Many people argue that Cinco de Mayo has become too commercialized and the true meaning has been forgotten. Scholars often note that most Americans believe Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day, when in fact it is not. Critics of these celebrations explain that the meaning is often misconstrued because “the celebration is almost indistinguishable from that of Mexico’s Independence Day on September 16th”. Cinco de Mayo festivals provide the same predictable tacos and mariachi bands as the commemorations of Mexico’s Independence Day except, they are even larger celebrations.

Some have compared Cinco de Mayo in the United States to that of St. Patrick’s Day. Some say that one way for Mexican Americans to “honor their ethnicity is to celebrate this day, even when most don’t know why.” Others believe that “both Mexican Americans and non-Hispanics seek out Cinco de Mayo events simply to party.” Alvar Carlson highlighted in his journal article “America’s Growing Observance of Cinco de Mayo,” that these “parties” are typically sponsored by large beverage companies like Anheuser-Busch, Miller Brewing or Pepsi-Cola. Unfortunately is seems that Cinco de Mayo has “become a day for people who are interested in selling things to the Hispanic community while ignoring us the rest of the year.

Others have pointed out the more stereotypical qualities of the celebrations. You can expect a number of vendors selling predictable food and beverages like tacos, guacamole, margaritas, Coronas, etc. You will also most likely hear Spanish radio stations and mariachi music, or even see live mariachi bands accompanied by dance troupes. Some celebrations also include contests like beauty contests or a jalapeno-eating contest. What you will not see however, is any indication of what Cinco de Mayo is actually commemorating. There will be no historical references, “no reenactment of the battle, [and] no attempt to clarify that it was not Mexico’s Independence Day.”

The celebration of Cinco de Mayo in San Diego, California is an example of how this historic event is now commemorated in the United States. According to the web site for the event titled Fiesta Old Town, after 29 years the event has become a “San Diego tradition.” The three day event consists of food, music and festivities that everyone is sure to enjoy. The web site even integrates Spanish language to create an experience for the public that the event will be authentically “Mexican.” For example, “los ninos will shriek with excitement,” or “there is no time for a siesta,” are just some of the phrases used to highlight the event’s integration of Mexican customs into American culture.

The significance of this event on the San Diego community can be seen in various press releases announcing the event each year. One of the most important aspects of the event in San Diego in particular, is that it is held in Old Town San Diego and organized by the Historic Old Town Community Foundation. According to San Diego Uptown News, “the Historic Old Town Community Foundation will celebrate Cinco de Mayo and Mexican culture at the site historians refer to as the birthplace of America.” San Diego Uptown News then provided some background history about Old Town San Diego in an attempt to make readers feel that Fiesta Old Town is in fact, an authentic celebration of Mexican history.

The San Diego Uptown News article also included quotes from local residents stating that this event is “designed to educate and inform,” or that the event will be an “educational experience.” However, the article itself does not provide an entirely accurate history of Cinco de Mayo. The article gives the impression that Napoleon III kept his troops in Mexico in an attempt to colonize, and it was on May 5th that the French were defeated in the “Batalla de Puebla.” However, the article does not mention that the reason Napoleon arrived in the first place, was because Benito Juarez, the Mexican President, announced he would not be repaying England, Spain or France their debt due to economic instability within Mexico. While the Fiesta Old Town web site does include this portion of the history, neither the press release article nor the official web site mention that France was not defeated entirely, but actually continued its occupation in Mexico for many years after the “Batalla de Puebla.”

Not only does the celebration promote predictable cultural customs by integrating a minimal amount of Spanish on the web site and highlighting photos of mariachi bands and low rider cars, the web site itself does not provide a complete or accurate history of the commemoration of Cinco de Mayo. By simply viewing the sponsorship page, we easily see the true meaning behind Fiesta Old Town. The top three sponsors of the celebration are Corona Extra, Corona Light and Tequila Herradura. Unfortunately it is obvious that the event has been turned into a drinking celebration rather than an historical commemoration.

While the celebration of Cinco de Mayo may be intended to instill pride within the Mexican American community, and in San Diego more specifically, it is intended to connect the community with its Mexican American roots in Old Town, the true meaning of the commemoration of May 5, 1862 is misguided. The history provided on the web site for the celebration in San Diego guides the public to believe that the “Batalla de Puebla” was a victory of independence. While it doesn’t state specifically that Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day, it does not attempt to clarify the misunderstanding. In my opinion, it encourages the public to continue believing a lie.

References:

James W. Loewen, “Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong,” New York: New Press, 1999, 15.

Ibid, 17.

Ibid, 26.

Alvar Carlson, “America’s Growing Observance of Cinco de Mayo.” Journal of American Culture, 21, No. 2:7 Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed March 16, 2013,) 2.

Liliana Castaneda Rossmann, “Cinco de Mayo: Stories, rituals and transcendence in celebration” Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse, 25: 5, 666.

Brian Greene, “Why is Cinco de Mayo More Popular in America Than in Mexico?” San Diego Uptown News, May 4, 2012 (accessed March 16, 2013.)

Alvar Carlson, “America’s Growing Observance of Cinco de Mayo.” Journal of American Culture, 21, No. 2:7 Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed March 16, 2013,) 2.

Brian Greene, “Why is Cinco de Mayo More Popular in America Than in Mexico?” San Diego Uptown News, May 4, 2012 (accessed March 16, 2013.)

Liliana Castaneda Rossmann, “Cinco de Mayo: Stories, rituals and transcendence in celebration” Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse, 25: 5, 685.

Brian Greene, “Why is Cinco de Mayo More Popular in America Than in Mexico?” San Diego Uptown News, May 4, 2012 (accessed March 16, 2013.)

Alvar Carlson, “America’s Growing Observance of Cinco de Mayo.” Journal of American Culture, 21, No. 2:7 Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed March 16, 2013,) 5.

Ibid, 5.

Liliana Castaneda Rossmann, “Cinco de Mayo: Stories, rituals and transcendence in celebration” Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse, 25: 5, 682.

Ibid, 683.

http://www.oldtownsandiegoguide.com/cinco.html (accessed March 16, 2013)

http://sduptownnews.com/fiesta-old-town-returning-for-cinco-de-mayo/ (accessed March 16, 2013.)