Thursday, May 5, 2022

Cinco de Mayo


 Cinco de Mayo folklorico dancers

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..."  and students would pay attention, as if they were in on a secret.  In a way they were. History is full of secret truths.

Cinco de Mayo is the most misunderstood holiday, and one that deserves some light shined on it. Before I go any further, I should admit, it’s a holiday that has deeply affected my heart, forcing me to make peace with my own culturally mixed heritage—my mestiza identity. 

 It all starts with my childhood in Tracy, California.

My Mexican mother, Juana, had her name Americanized to Jennie when she was entering school. Growing up, 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 finding employment with the U.S. Government and assimilating into American culture. My Irish-American father, Jack Ryan, blew into the little cow-town of Tracy from Boston in the late 1950’s. He met my mother, sparks flew madly, and wedding vows were soon exchanged. Jack and Jennie Ryan had five stunning little kids, all completely insulated in a very Catholic culture, the chosen and shared culture of my parents. I inherited 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 my fourth-grade heart—was Mexican. As I grew, my friends became more white and so did I. Soon, my cultural heritage was a stew, and my life was 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?! I thought Melissa 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—and called a real Mexican-American. 

I threw the paper down and got ready for school. But as I got my makeup on, tears welled up in my eyes. Why did I care about a stupid Mexican parade anyway? It was the first time I felt conflicted about my heritage, and part of me felt orphaned. My perpetually tanned skin and my straight black hair kind of hinted at a Mexican heritage, but what else about me did? 

On the way home from school that day, Melissa's reign as Cinco de Mayo queen was the subject of conversation in our carpool.

"She definitely was the prettiest one,” one of our friends said. Everyone agreed. We all knew that Cinco de Mayo queens were ornamental—no speeches or talent were necessary—the primary job of the queen was to smile and wave, a beautiful 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 was a thorn in my mestiza heart. 

"I don't have enough Cinco in my Mayo," I said. Everyone thought that was funny. Even Mom laughed. 

I tuned the others out, recognizing 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 who got free lunches because their parents were working in the fields.  They kept to themselves, and didn't really seek out my friendship. Real Mexican guys wore cowboy hats and drove trucks. The Chicanos, who celebrated their Mexican-American heritage, also looked different from me. The vatos drove low riders; the Chicanas wore eyeliner with wings. I could count my Spanish-speaking friends on one hand. This disparity was killing me. 


Cinco de Mayo was a reminder of how homogenized I had become. It was a Hispanic Pride Day where all of the real cowboys got out their rhinestone-studded black suits, big sombreros, and carried Mexican flags as they rode atop horses. Beautiful, traditional folklorico dancers, dressed in over-sized skirts, made hypnotic circles with their hems, becoming symbols of culture and skill. While they danced, I stared. The holiday, for everyone else, seemed to be about drinking.

Cinco de Mayo is an American holiday, celebrated by immigrants who miss their homeland. It’s not Mexican Independence Day. It’s a celebration of victory and surprise and tenacity of spirit.

The real reason it’s celebrated? Because dancing in the presence of the enemy is the best feeling in the world. Now I’ll tell you something the other teachers won’t tell you: why we celebrate.

Anónimo, Batalla del 5 de mayo de 1862
photo credit

In 1862, Mexico found itself in terrible debt to foreign countries—mainly France, Spain and Great Britain—and it was experiencing a national monetary crisis. After a long war, the Mexican government, led by Benito Juárez, admitted it could not even pay the interest on the European loans they had taken. The three countries, all with trained armies, decided to unite and force Mexico to pay back the money it owed. 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, or so they said, the French Army was out to enlarge their foreign empire. Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Napoleon III, looking to make a name for himself, gave orders to his army to take Mexico by force. The French army took to the land, and pursued the Mexican army, hoping to defeat them.  

After several skirmishes, the French army officers decided that Napoleon III had officially underestimated the spirit and the power of the Mexicans. They sent word to their new president, who ignored their missive. Then... (wait for it) on May 5 1862, in Puebla, a large city between Mexico City and Veracruz, the French Army faced the Mexican army and were defeated. Badly. Even after retreat, the French army lost five hundred soldiers. The Mexican army only lost eighty-three. Benito Juárez declared the victory at Puebla significant for Mexico, and declared that Cinco de Mayo would be a national holiday.

News of the Mexican victory spread to the western US, where Mexican miners in California were so overjoyed at the news they celebrated by firing guns and singing patriotic songs. Thus, the first American 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. It took a lot of time, and many years of battle, for the French to retreat and leave the country. After the American Civil War was over, President Johnson, in order to “protect American interests” dispatched the US Army to the Mexican border. Napoleon III realized his predicament, and withdrew his troops from Mexico. The real story of Cinco de Mayo has a moral: never underestimate Mexico or Mexicans! They will do more with their hearts than most people can do with their heads. 


As an adult, I found a way to reconnect with my Mexican heritage, 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...

In my kitchen 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 when I roll tortillas. I become Mexican American when I assemble tamales, or menudo. With taste and smell, I celebrate being Mexican-American. 

On Cinco de Mayo, I can’t dance folklorico, or braid  colorful ribbons in my hair, but I don't have to be the Cinco de Mayo Queen to know I am a real Mexican-American. I have what I need, here in my hands.

Cinco de Mayo with my parents, 2018

My new family memoir, which addresses the homogenization of my Mexican culture is available here, through Prickly Pear Publishing