Holiday proves U.S. ignorant of neighbor

Now that Cinco de Mayo is over, and a hundred million Americans think they’ve had a genuine brush with international culture, I have to tell you the truth: Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican holiday.

That’s news to most businesses, organizations and government agencies. They have no idea how much they don’t know about the Latino immigrants. Cinco de Mayo is the tip of an iceberg of ignorance about some of the most wonderful people in the world.

A few people in Mexico celebrate another version of May 5 — but none that I’ve ever met. The reason the holiday survives is that so many U.S. citizens think it’s a Mexican holiday. And the reason they think it is because so many Mexican descendants who weren’t educated on that side of the border think it’s a Mexican holiday.

Mexicans who were raised in Mexico and still live there, or who moved here with knowledge of Mexican history, are bewildered by all the noise this country makes over May 5. One Mexican radio announcer said in Spanish, “It’s incredible! It’s incredible! It’s incredible how big a deal people here make of Cinco de Mayo. Go around in Mexico, and you won’t see anybody celebrating it.”

Well, it really is incredible.

But somewhere back in time, Mexican-Americans wanted to have something of the old country to hang onto. Not knowing the actual history of the Battle at Puebla, they fantasized about a great victory that was so short-lived it’s hardly worth mentioning. So was born Cinco de Mayo, a twist of history concocted and enjoyed on the north side of the border.

The Mexican government has stated very clearly that Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican holiday, not a national holiday. In fact, in Spanish we don’t write Cinco de Mayo. We write cinco de mayo. Just May 5th, like May 4th — no big deal.

The fantasy is that Mexico scored a tremendous victory over French invaders in spring of 1863. It was indeed a surprising pushback at first on May 5. But the French army regrouped three days later — ocho de mayo — and put a siege on the Puebla forces. I call this day Oucho de Mayo. Mexico didn’t stand a chance, and everybody in Mexico has known it and has therefore refrained from pretending it was a victory worth bragging about. It was in fact a hopeless cause.

And that’s why Mexico is totally amazed at the ignorance behind the great hoopla made over May 5 every year, including in the White House, where leaders exhibit amazing ignorance about cultures.

Mexican restaurant owners in the U.S. know that norteamericanos expect some Cinco de Mayo action. So they offer specials and a few decorations, but they know — they know — it’s just a fantasy, a creation of people who lost touch with the history of their ancestors.

It doesn’t bother me that people celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Most Mexican-Americans who celebrate Cinco de Mayo readily admit it’s an excuse to party down and forget about historical technicalities. The significance of the day is that it indicates how little the U.S. knows about a big next-door neighbor.

Max T. Russell writes for the international business intelligence community. You can contact him via his website, maxtrussell.com.