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Cinco de Mayo: No longer humdrum holiday

May 03, 2002|By AARON CLAVERIE

Staff Writer

CALEXICO — At parties and community events this weekend, thousands of Imperial Valley residents will be shouting, "Viva el Cinco de Mayo!" and, or, "Hey we're out of margarita salt!"

But why? (Besides the fact they're out of salt.)

Because a group of Mexican-American students at Cal State Los Angeles picked what is considered a hum-drum military holiday in Mexico, celebrating a long-ago rout of the French, to help promote Chicano pride.

That's one reason.

"During the 1960s a group of Mexican American students at California State University, Los Angeles, held the first Cinco de Mayo celebration in the United States," according to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.


Eventually the annual campus celebration became more popular throughout Southern California and spread east across the country into Texas.

There, the League of Latin American Citizens in San Marcos staged a Cinco de Mayo event in the mid-1970s to raise money for scholarships because no one else in the area was celebrating the holiday, according to Lulac founding member Richard Cruz.

Eventually that annual celebration became the biggest in Texas, he said, attracting close to 20,000 people for a weekend of activities.

As the U.S. version of the Cinco de Mayo celebration gained a foothold in northern states in the 1980s, tortilla chip and beer companies horned in on the holiday and figured out hyping a Mexican-American holiday would be a great way to get people to buy the companies' products for big parties.

Note the special Tecate, Corona, Doritos and Tostitos booths at your local supermarket.

As for why the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, was worthy of being celebrated at all, the Web site explains it all. The Web site is run by the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce.

This recap is reprinted here with permission:

"Why Cinco de Mayo? And why should U.S. citizens savor this day as well? Because 4,000 Mexican soldiers smashed the French and a traitorous Mexican army of 8,000 at Puebla, Mexico, 100 miles east of Mexico City on the morning of May 5, 1862.

"The French had landed in Mexico (along with Spanish and English troops) five months earlier on the pretext of collecting Mexican debts from the newly elected government of democratic President Benito Juarez. The English and Spanish quickly made deals and left. The French, however, had different ideas.

"Under Emperor Napoleon III, who detested the United States, the French came to stay. They brought a Hapsburg prince with them to rule the new Mexican empire. His name was Maximilian; his wife, Carolota. Napoleon's French Army had not been defeated in 50 years, and it invaded Mexico with the finest modern equipment and with a newly reconstituted Foreign Legion. The French were not afraid of anyone, especially since the United States was embroiled in its own Civil War.

"The French Army left the port of Veracruz to attack Mexico City to the west, as the French assumed that the Mexicans would give up should their capital fall to the enemy — as European countries traditionally did.

"Under the command of Texas-born Gen. Zaragoza, (and the cavalry under the command of Col. Porfirio Diaz, later to be Mexico's president and dictator), the Mexicans awaited. Brightly dressed French Dragoons led the enemy columns. The Mexican Army was less stylish.

"Gen. Zaragoza ordered Col. Diaz to take his cavalry, the best in the world, out to the French flanks. In response, the French did a most stupid thing; they sent their cavalry off to chase Diaz and his men, who proceeded to butcher them. The remaining French infantrymen charged the Mexican defenders through sloppy mud from a thunderstorm and through hundreds of head of stampeding cattle stirred up by Indians armed only with machetes.

"When the battle was over, many French were killed or wounded and their cavalry was being chased by Diaz' superb horsemen miles away. The Mexicans had won a great victory that kept Napoleon III from supplying the confederate rebels for another year, allowing the United States to build the greatest army the world had ever seen. This grand army smashed the Confederates at Gettysburg just 14 months after the battle of Puebla, essentially ending the Civil War.

"Union forces were then rushed to the Texas/Mexican border under General Phil Sheridan, who made sure that the Mexicans got all the weapons and ammunition they needed to expel the French. U.S. soldiers were discharged with their uniforms and rifles if they promised to join the Mexican Army to fight the French. The U.S. Legion of Honor marched in the victory parade in Mexico City.

"In gratitude, thousands of Mexicans crossed the border after Pearl Harbor to join the U.S. Armed Forces. As recently as the Persian Gulf War, Mexicans flooded American consulates with phone calls, trying to join up and fight another war for America.

"Mexicans, you see, never forget who their friends are, and neither do their amigos to the north. That's why Cinco de Mayo is such a party — a party that celebrates freedom and liberty. There are two ideals which Mexicans and Americans have fought shoulder to shoulder to protect, ever since the 5th of May, 1862. VIVA! el CINCO DE MAYO!!"

And, not because we owe the San Marcos chamber or anything … those interested in visiting San Marcos next year to check out one of the biggest Cinco de Mayo parties in the country and experience the world-famous menudo cook-off can call (512) 353-VIVA for more information.

San Marcos is located "deep in the heart of Texas," according to a chamber staffer; 25 miles south of Austin.

The population is 50,000 with a good percentage of those residents attending Texas State University, a school with an enrollment of 23,000.

>> Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or

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