Celebrating Cinco De Mayo...Or Not

As many people commemorate Cinco de Mayo with nachos, beer and margaritas, at least one Mexican American is not feeling the party. Host Michel Martin speaks with Gustavo Arellano about America's fascination with a Mexican holiday that is barely observed south of the border. Arellano is the author of the OC Weekly's "Ask A Mexican" column.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Yes, as you just heard, it's Cinco de Mayo. It's celebrated around the country with nachos and tacos and margaritas and beer. And you might be surprised to know that the holiday, which marks the day Mexican forces won the battle of Puebla over much larger French troops in 1862, is not widely celebrated in Mexico. Certainly not as widely celebrated as Independence Day in September.

Still, people will raise their Coronas today from New York to Southern California, and that is where we find one of our regulars who is not quite feeling it. Gustavo Arellano is a syndicated columnist who writes the Ask a Mexican column for the O.C. Weekly and he's with us now from Santa Ana, California to explain his - Gustavo, what should we call it? Hatred? Would that be...

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: A grotesque caricature of culture, how's that?

MARTIN: I think that's pretty clear. I'll just read from your column, which - a column that you wrote which is actually widely reprinted at this time of year. It was published originally in 2003, and you say: Cinco de Mayo is ridiculous. It's not pointless because it serves the nationalist project of promoting pride in a country and its culture. It isn't worthless since it's worked like a charm in making Mexicans out of all ethnicities come May 5th, even if the extent of commitment toward Mexico Lindo y querida is drinking Corona instead of Coors.

But celebrating Cinco de Mayo is ridiculous because it commemorates a victory that ultimately meant nothing. So what's so terrible? So what's so terrible?

ARELLANO: What's so terrible about the holiday is just how misconstrued it is. First of all, a lot of Americans think it's Mexico's independence day. It's not. As you pointed out, it commemorates a victory by the Mexican forces, by the Mexican army at the time, against a much larger invading French army at the Battle of Puebla. So that was an upset victory. Hey, that's great and all. In terms of military history, we could celebrate that one victory.

But in the ultimate battle the French won. A year later they went back on that same battlefield. They took over. They installed Maximillian, a Hapsburg puppet, for four years, and in the larger scheme of things, and this especially goes to the sense of Mexican pride - Mexicans, we like to pride ourselves as being this Mexican nation, pure and, you know, wonderful. Well, if we're trying to repel foreign invaders, in this case we absolutely lost against the French.

Because so much French influence infiltrated Mexican culture, which I argue is for the better, but if we're playing the game of, you know, fending off invaders, it was a horrible - it was a massive loss for us.

MARTIN: Well, what about - why is this any different from St. Patrick's Day, which of course is not widely celebrated in Ireland, or even Mardi Gras, which is the prelude to, you know, Lent, which is a time of fasting, which many - most people don't really do anymore. So why is this any different? I mean, isn't America about reinvention?

ARELLANO: It's not that much different. Of course, all of those are ethnic holidays. Mardi Gras, of course, comes from the Creole culture of New Orleans, and of course, Catholic culture, St. Patrick's Day, another Catholic holiday in Mexico, you know, Oktoberfest also with Germans. But the difference is those other cultures, we've generally accepted them into the American fabric. Mexicans are still reviled - you know, with your previous guest, with the congressman just talking about comprehensive immigration reform - so many people still insist Mexicans are trying to take over the American Southwest.

We're still not an accepted ethnicity. However, when it comes to these ethnic holidays, Americans have always loved to play the ethnic. You know, Cinco de Mayo is an excuse for everyone to be Mexican, to don the sombrero and a mustache, to get drunk, because hey, Mexicans do it all the time. So now this is the one day we could do it as well. It's not unexpected, of course, it's part of the American way, but that doesn't make it somehow acceptable.

MARTIN: Well, why isn't it - well, what would be better? I mean, what should people do? I mean read books on Mexican history? I mean, that's not terrible to do, but, I mean, is that a holiday? Everybody get together, read a book.

ARELLANO: Well, it's a holiday for me - it's a holiday for me to go the library. What should people do? I mean, they should - if they want to celebrate a Mexican holiday, they should celebrate Dia del Nino, children's day. In Mexico, we have a holiday devoted to children where we celebrate, you know, the beauty of children, their contributions and everything. But, of course, Americans don't want to do that, because what kind of a party is it to celebrate children? No. We must get drunk, we must engage in brawls. We must get our three tacos for a dollar with, you know, margaritas half off. Again, I might sound like a spoilsport...

MARTIN: Yeah.

ARELLANO: ...and that's perfectly fine, not the first time I've done that. But ultimately I think my points should - do remain on target.

MARTIN: Well, so what are you going to do to observe the day? Are you going to have an anti-holiday, just drink only water?

ARELLANO: No. Not even close. Actually, you know, it's the congressman's birthday today, it's my girlfriend's birthday today, so I'm going to celebrate her birthday. And she actually calls it - her name's Delilah, so she calls it Cinco Delilah.

MARTIN: Cinco Delilah.

ARELLANO: Yeah.

MARTIN: And what's going to be on the menu? If you don't mind my asking. Are you going to go French or just - just to kind of go the completely perverse direction?

ARELLANO: No. No.

MARTIN: Vin blanc sauce, and...

ARELLANO: I'm going to go get her a latte right now. Then I have to surprise her later on.

MARTIN: Okay.

ARELLANO: Flowers, all the good, good romantic things a good Mexican man does...

MARTIN: Okay. Well, we won't give it all away. Okay. Gustavo Arellano is a syndicated columnist who writes the Ask a Mexican column for the OC Weekly. He joined us from Santa Ana, California. I think I probably better not wish him a happy Cinco de Mayo. Gustavo, thank you.

ARELLANO: Hey, gracias, Michel.

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