I used to teach elementary school, which colors the way I see most holidays. In the classroom, my favorite thing to say was: "Let me tell you something the other teachers won't tell you." It made the students pay attention, as if they were in on a secret. In a way they were, because our history is full of secret truths.
Cinco de Mayo is a holiday I like to talk about, since it has been so misunderstood over the years. It has also been a holiday that has deeply affected my heart, forcing me to make peace with my own culturally mixed heritage- my mestiza identity.
This starts with my childhood in Tracy, California.
I grew up with a Mexican mother, Juana, who had her name "American-ized" to Jennie when she was entering school. I never sensed any conflict in this, and there was not much discussion about how she felt when it happened. She grew up happy, eventually becoming a secretary for the U.S. Government. My Irish-Catholic father, Jack Ryan, blew into the little cow-town of Tracy from Boston and met my mother, where sparks flew and wedding vows were soon exchanged. So, Jack and Jennie had five stunning little kids, all completely clueless of how the rest of the world can be. I inherited the Irish soulfulness from my father, and a beautiful Mexican heritage from my mother.
In grade school, all of my friends were Mexican. The first boy I ever loved--with all of my fourth-grade heart--was Mexican. As I grew, my friends became more white and so did I. Soon, my heritage was lost inside a myriad of activities: band, guitar, track, writing, speech and debate.
In high school, a few days before Tracy's famous Cinco de Mayo parade (if you've never been to a Cinco de Mayo parade, you are missing a true slice of Americana) I found out, via the Tracy Press, that my sister Shari's friend, Melissa, had been crowned Tracy's Cinco de Mayo queen. She would preside over the parade as she rode on a convertible surrounded by festive color and flowers. I was livid...what the hell! She was like me, an English-speaking girl from an English-speaking family. What right did she have to be Cinco de Mayo queen? Now she would be adored--like our Lady of Guadalupe--a real Mexican girl.
I threw the paper down and got ready for school. What did I care about a stupid Mexican parade anyway? But as I got my makeup on, tears welled up in my eyes. It was the first time I felt conflicted about my heritage, and part of me felt orphaned. Besides my perpetually tanned skin and my straight black hair, how much did I show my Mexican heritage?
In the carpool on the way home, Melissa's reign was the subject of conversation.
"Did you see that Melissa is going to be Cinco de Mayo Queen?" one of my friends said. "She definitely was the prettiest one of all the girls who were running."
Everyone agreed, all of us knowing that Cinco de Mayo queens were ornamental--no speeches required or talent exhibited--just sit there and be a beautiful real Mexican-American girl.
"Hey, Janet," one of my other friends said, "Why didn't you run for Cinco de Mayo queen?" He meant it as a compliment, really. He didn't know how much the whole thing bothered me.
"I don't have enough Cinco in my Mayo." I replied flatly. Everyone thought that was funny, even Mom laughed.
Even in my attempt at humor, I recognized a strange, misplaced identity. I didn't know how to do it: be a real Mexican-American. At my school, most of the kids I saw as real Mexican kids were Spanish-speaking. Some were migrants whogot free lunches because their parents were working the fields. They kept to themselves and didn't really seek out my friendship. Real Mexican guys wore cowboy hats and drove trucks--the vatos drove low riders. I could count my real Mexican friends on one hand. This disparity was killing me.
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo has become a Hispanic Pride Day, where all of the real cowboys get out fancy black suits, big sombreros, and carry Mexican flags as they ride atop horses . All the pretty Mexican girl dancers wore over-sized skirts and made hypnotic circles with them while they danced.
When I researched the history of Cinco de Mayo, I understood why it was a holiday worth celebrating--why it was the one that Mexican-Americans claimed as their own.
In 1862, Mexico's recent civil war had caused a national monetary crisis and Mexico was forced to suspend paying the interest on European loans they had taken. Several European countries had interests there - France, Spain and Great Britain. The three countries, decided to unite and force the new Mexican Government (led by Benito Juárez ) to pay back the money it owed to them. By the end of the year, European ships occupied Veracruz, Mexico's largest port. While Great Britain and Spain were there only to negotiate repayment of loans in full, the French Army, under Napoleon III's French orders, took to the land and pursued the Mexican army, hoping to defeat them and make them surrender to Mexico to France.
After several skirmishes with the French, on May 5 in Puebla, a large city between Mexico City and Veracruz, that the French officially underestimated the spirit and the power of the Mexican army and were defeated, badly. The "superior" French army retreated, losing almost five hundred soldiers while the Mexican army only lost eighty-three. Benito Juárez declared the victory at Puebla significant for Mexico and deemed Cinco de Mayo a national holiday.
News of the Mexican victory spread to the western US, where Mexican gold miners in northern California were so overjoyed at the news they celebrated by firing guns and singing patriotic songs. Thus, the first Cinco de Mayo party was born.
The Mexican Army's great show of strength on Cinco de Mayo didn't end the war with the French--neither did it scare off their creditors. It took a lot of time, and many years of battle, for the world to realize that Mexico was not going to stop fighting until they had genuine independence. After the American Civil War was over, President Johnson, in order to protect American interests, sent the US Army to the Mexican border, in order to show our official support. It wasn't until 1866, when the French decided to withdraw ("This isn't a surrender, Mexico, we just miss home!") and Mexico was un-officially sovereign.
Cinco de Mayo Battle in 1862
(Image: Public Domain)
I love strength and beauty of the Mexicans--my ancestors--who are generally underestimated, even now. The real story of Cinco de Mayo has a moral: never underestimate the Mexicans! We are a people who will do more with their hearts than most people can do with their heads.
As an adult, I have tried to reconnect with this side of my heritage, which is done all year-round. I am currently writing and reading more Spanish than I ever have in my whole life. Speaking it involves great bravery--I am still so nervous as the words of my heart come out of my mouth. Español es la lengua de mi corazón...
Yet, it is in the kitchen of my house is where I really become Mexican. It all started when I learned the secrets of a good enchilada sauce from my grandma, who taught me how to cook all the Mexican staples. I connect with my heritage when I make masa and roll tortillas, assemble tamales and chop onions. When I eat menudo, I am Mexican.
On Cinco de Mayo, I wear a colorful Mexican dress and ribbons in my hair. I don't have to be the Cinco de Mayo Queen to know I am a real Mexican-American, I already am.