Next Saturday is Cinco de Mayo, a day that is clearly misunderstood. It is not, as many people believe, a Mexican independence day, and the victory it represents was not over the Spanish but the French. Also, the date’s popularity has more to do with marketing than with history and a lot more to do with beer than with tequila. The fact that, in New Orleans, it usually coincides with the second week of Jazz Fest is a happy coincidence.
In the 1860s France had used war as an excuse to collect back debt, but its real motivation was to have a presence near the American border to equalize the emerging United States powerhouse.
What followed was one of those classic tales of the poorly equipped, undermanned home country standing up to the powerful invader – somewhat similar to the battle of New Orleans. On the morning of May 5, 1862, a Mexican army of 4000 defied the French forces of 6500 near the town of Puebla, 100 miles east of Mexico city.
Mexico’s army had a great cavalry led by Colonel Porfirio Diaz, whose horsemen would whip the French cavalry. Meanwhile French infantry charged the Mexican defenders only to get caught up in mud, thunderstorms and stampeding cattle stirred up by Indians. By the end of the day the Mexicans had achieved a near-impossible victory.
Though the Mexicans won the battle, the French, who sent in another force, eventually won the war. The events of May 5, 1862 were more important to the Mexican national spirit than to the outcome. Similar to Andrew Jackson's experience in New Orleans, the skirmish at Puebla did launch the political career of a military officer: Porfirio Diaz, the colonel who led the calvary, would eventually become Mexico’s president and dictator.
Cinco de Mayo evolved as a regional celebration in the state of Puebla, but eventually it would spread throughout United States. What force was behind the popularization of the date? Here’s my theory: After years of being conquered, a power came out of Mexico that would conquer the world, at least the world of the thirsty. It is Corona beer.
There is no coincidence that the popularity of Cinco de Mayo has paralleled the popularity of the beer that now claims to be one of the top-selling brews in the world. Corona promotes the 5th of May on its signs and commercials, spreading the word in every bar and restaurant on the planet where its suds are served. The fact that early May is the beginning of the hot months – the time when beer sells best – certainly helps. We would probably know less about the battle of Puebla had the French chosen to attack instead during mid-winter.
In New Orleans, Cinco gets an extra boost because it falls around Jazz Fest time. This year the date is on the days after the second weekend of Jazz Fest, providing one more excuse to party.
Most people will still believe they’re celebrating Mexican independence, and nevertheless, they will be drinking to it.