Cheers to Solidarity
Since its commercialization in the late 1980s, Cinco de Mayo has become associated with drinking—a sort of Mexican American version of St. Patrick's Day. It is also true that Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican national holiday. Cinco de Mayo celebrations originated in California and are the result of the merging of two cultures. This is a day to take pride in our multiracial heritage. So enjoy a lime in your cerveza and a crunchy taco—or something more auténtico—and set aside some time to show gratitude by recalling and honoring our shared history through music, food, and community.
The Battle of Puebla
Rather than commemorating Mexico's Independence, on Cinco de Mayo we show solidarity with others and recognize that their battles and their victories are ours as well. There may be no better example of this than the Battle of Puebla. Here's the story: In 1862, Mexico owed France money, so Napoleon invaded Mexico, under the pretense that Mexico would pay its debt with land. Megalomaniac that he was, Napoleon aimed to expand his Empire, and control of this land would have given him a direct line of entry into the United States to support the Confederacy.
On May 6, in Puebla de los Angeles (now simply Puebla), Mexico, General Ignacio Zaragoza led a militia of untrained indigenous "rebels" to defeat a French troop with two to three times as many soldiers. When word of the Mexican victory at Puebla reached Mexican Americans in Columbia—in the free state of California—people took to the streets, setting off fireworks and proclaiming their support of Mexico's resistance against French colonial expansion with speeches and songs.
Having won the Battle at Puebla, Mexico did not win the Franco-Mexican War for another five years, when the Union won the Civil War and sent aid. In the meantime, resistance continued, as Napoleon, infuriated by the loss, poured all of his finances into trying to secure Mexico. Cinco de Mayo celebrations spread throughout the United States, in places with large populations of Mexican Americans, and Napoleon was never able to support the Confederacy.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Cinco de Mayo's resurgence in popularity sprang from a desire to cultivate Mexican American cultural pride and Civil Rights movements and to celebrate the United States' multicultural history. So Cinco de Mayo may have been promoted by the media as alcohol-centered at the end of the 20th century, but Cinco de Mayo was originally, and continues to be, about freedom and solidarity.
No Sombrero Necessary
Costuming in traditional Mexican garb is not required, nor is it appropriate to a Mexican American celebration. In actuality, denim, western shirts, and cowboy hats of the Southwest are common across Mexico. Besides, the layered skirts and flashy colors donned by female dancers of baile folklorico differ from region to region, so there are restrictions even in Mexico regarding who wears what, when it comes to costuming.
That said, of course, in a celebration of freedom and solidarity, you can do what ya wanna. Incorporating bright and saturated colors, intricate patterns, and beading, jewelry embedded with turquoise and jade, amethyst, onyx, and red jasper—get creative combining palettes and textures extravagantly, to channel big Mexican American celebratory vibes. Listening to mariachi music and using your heels as a percussion instrument are delightful and authentic ways to show your love and solidarity with our Mexican American compatriots and give thanks for Mexico's triumph on the 5th.
No Cinco de Mayo celebration is complete without feasting. Lots of restaurants around New Orleans offer Mexican American fare, and food trucks abound, serving street tacos any abuelita would scarf down. But preparing Mexican and Mexican American treats to enjoy for breakfast, lunch, or dinner is easy. For breakfast, start with eggs or black beans for your protein, replace your toast with tortillas, your hash browns or grits with rice, add some pico de gallo, salsa, or avocado to the mix. Spice your coffee with cinnamon, cloves, and star anise.
Tacos, burritos, and quesadillas are good for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So are enchiladas, which are also easy to make as a casserole, topped with cheese and green salsa or a homemade sauce-try a quick blend of tomato paste and broth, spiced with chili powder, cumin, and fresh peppers or salsa. To fill any of the above, throw some sautéed peppers, onion, and/or mushrooms into the suggested breakfast mix. Switch up the protein with carne asada, grilled chicken, fried tofu, or blackened shrimp. Tostadas are also a great platform for enjoying these combos. Or make a mollete by heaping it onto a boat of toasted French bread.
Making tamales is not the only way to get muy auténtico in the kitchen on Cinco de Mayo. To make a simple mole-inspired sauce, sauté onions, garlic, and a jalapeno pepper in 2 Tbsp oil until softened, before adding 2 Tbsp of flour spiced with cinnamon, cumin, and oregano. Remove from heat, add 2-3 cups of broth, and puree with a blender, before returning to heat. Add 1 tsp salt, 2 Tbsp almond butter (sunflower or cashew butter or tahini also works), and 1 Tbsp each tomato paste and cocoa powder. Bring to a simmer, thicken to your liking, and then pour mole over any of the Mexican American dishes you've prepared to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.