Cinco de Mayo gets more and more popular every year — but should it? We talk about the radical roots of a reviled holiday.
We repeat our episode from last year on Cinco de Mayo because it’s that good. Axios reporter Russell Contreras takes us to the forgotten history of the holiday that’s more American than Mexican, and offers a case for why we should celebrate it. Read the transcript here.
Host: Gustavo Arellano
Guests: Axios reporter Russell Contreras
If it’s Cinco de Mayo, the cooking should be Mexican
Op-Ed: Cinco de Mayo -- a truly Mexican American holiday
Five ways to celebrate Cinco de Mayo at home
Intro Theme mux
Gustavo: As an American, let me tell you about the one holiday in the U.S. that's more loved and loathed than any other.
The one, no one takes seriously, especially us Mexicans, even though we totally should.
You know which one. We're talking all about Cinco de Mayo!
Mux switch to Mariachi
Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times. It’s Thursday–yup–May 5, 2022.
Today...we're re-airing our Cinco de Mayo episode from last year...because it's that pinche good.
Gustavo: Let's get it out of the way. The 5th of May is not Mexican independence day. That's actually on September 16th. But for many of us, today is mostly about restaurant specials on nachos and Margaritas. Too many white people wearing sombreros and fake mustaches. Normally this is where we'd play you some sound of single the miles commercialization, especially from beer companies. But because our lawyer said no for copyright reasons, here's our own, The Times Daily News from the LA Times, rendition. It's based on real life.
TAPE: Have you heard of Cinco de Mayo?
Cinco de what?
You know, the Mexican holiday.
Let's celebrate with a Cinco de- trademark beer company.
Gustavo: Cinco de cringe. Am I right? So let's start over shall we? To get us up to speed on what Cinco de Mayo is really about, we reached out to my long-time compa Axios’ race and justice reporter, Russell Contraras. We reached Russell in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but he's a Houston native. So go Dodgers.
Gustavo: Hey man, what's going on, Russell?
Russell: How's it going, brother? Great to be with you.
Gustavo: So Russell, you're in New Mexico. How are you celebrating Cinco de Mayo in ABQ-Albuquerque?
Russell: I'm not going to do anything differently, especially with COVID. I'm not going to a Mexican restaurant here in New Mexico. I would have to go to a new Mexican restaurant and Cinco de Mayo just doesn't have that same celebration for me. I, and I look in places like Albuquerque and Denver where the cities will offer free ride sharing rides for those who are celebrating Cinco de Mayo as they do St. Patrick's Day. And because of those dangers about drunk driving, I usually stay home. I'll probably drink an IPA. I'll probably watch a foreign film, but it's nothing–no different than what I’m going to do any other day. I do, however, reflect on what the day means for us. And that moment in time when I was a four or five-year-old boy, when Houston erupted into riots. That's more important to me than what you see at a local restaurant and commercials.
Gustavo: Yeah. No one celebrates their taco salad on Cinco de Mayo.. Except....some people..
TAPE: Donald Trump took to Twitter and Facebook with a picture of himself eating a taco bowl. And the caption saying “Happy Cinco de Mayo. The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower grill. I love Hispanics.”
Gustavo: OY VEY!
Gustavo: Yeah most people don't realize that Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates something. It commemorates the Battle of Puebla. So that lets us talk about that history. And so we got to go back to the past when it actually happens... 1862: the U.S. is in its civil war. You know, having to deal with slavery, and France is trying to take over Mexico. Why the hell would France want Mexico?
Russell: Well,Napoleon III wanted Mexico. This is at a time–we have to remember that Mexico is still a young country. We're talking like 50 years since the grito, right?
Gustavo: : “El grito”--in case you're not Mexican is a rallying cry that happened to mark Mexico's war of independence, which remember, it September 16th, not Cinco de Mayo.
Russell: And it is very vulnerable. And they had run up debts. And so European powers wanted their money. And so Napoleon III uses this as an excuse to invade it and take it over and make it another colony. And so while this is going on, the civil war is, is getting heated up in the United States, between pro-slavery forces and the U.S. government. It's not just the Union Army, it's the U.S. government. And so you have this international dispute that folks in California do not differentiate. They see this is the same struggle. And when the battle of Puebla happens, it all meshes together and looks like a part of a big movement. Even though these movements may not have been in conversation with each other. But for Latinos in California, it was the same.
Gustavo: In case you're not Mexican, Puebla is a city in central Mexico, the fifth largest today with a population of 1.5 million. Really good food too. It's always been strategic, so the French immediately wanted it, while the US was busy with its own civil war.
Russell: Exactly. It was an Indigenous army. They’re at a spot and they see the approaching French forces–and you have to remember, they were intimidating. It was a site that would scare everybody. This is the best army in the world and Benito Juarez and his group of ragtag Indigenious soldiers happened to defeat them in this battle. The Indigenous army had outdated equipment, outdated armor, but they had a strategic location. They were on a hill as the invading French forces came. And if you take anything from military history, you know that's a major advantage. You shoot down while the French had to shoot up. And it reminded folks, what was the possibility. You could be outnumbered and outgunned, but as long as you have the drive and you have luck and you had a strategic location, you could win. I believe that those elements is what got people excited in California and later would be used by the Chicano movement that, yes: we are outnumbered, we are outgunned, but that does not mean we will lose.
Gustavo: So yeah, Mexico beats France in the battle of Puebla 1862, but the following year. The same battle happens. France wins. They take over Mexico. They occupy it for a couple of years, but then Mexico ends up beating the French once and for all. So meanwhile, in the American Southwest, which will, of course, was just Mexico, 15 years before all of this, they see that battle. That one battle as, as a symbolism, as almost a hope of this is how we can resist a foreign Imperial power.
Russell: Yes. And the reason they did that is because this was an Indigenous group fighting a Western European power. It would later become and develop into a David versus Goliath storyline.
Gustavo: So we got former LA Times staffer and part-time actor Darrell Kunitomi to read this newspaper clipping about the battle of Puebla from the San Francisco Examiner. This is from Cinco de Mayo, 1869.
TAPE: Date line: Mexican Rejoicings. This being the seventh anniversary of the battle of Puebla, in which the Mexicans defeated the French troops under Laurancez
Russell: What you can hear in that piece. And the way it was written. There was jubilation in California. They saw themselves in the same fight as they did with abolitionists in the Americas.
TAPE: Its results convinced the Mexicans, that if well commanded, they could successfully contend with the best disciplined European troops. This victory revived the drooping spirit of the nation and kept alive the determined resistance, which ended in the expulsion of the invaders. Gen. Zaragoza was one of the youngest officers of the Republic. In the evening an oration and poem will be delivered at Turn-Verein Hall and the celebration of the day will conclude by a ball at the same place.
Russell: And we have to remember at the time that the French invaded Mexico, California was a young state and it was a state that had a number of immigrants. This was not just a place for Mexican and Mexican Americans, but Chilenas. Folks from Central America, South America. They all came to California for the gold rush. And so there were very strong Spanish language newspapers at the time. When the battle of Puebla happens, on Cinco de Mayo, they equate that to the battle against slavery in the South, because Napoleon III had made overtures to the South. One, it was very clear that some of the European powers wanted the south to win.
Russell: The people in California, these Latinos saw themselves in kinship with the um Indigenous soldiers who won in the Battle of Puebla. They also saw it as an abolitionist fight. So it overtook this, this excitement in California. And this is the key thing, Gustavo. I've seen a lot of things on social media,when we talk about Black and brown relations, especially from Wokoso, we know who Wokoso are
Gustavo: Wokoso also really quickly, it's a portmanteau of being woke and a mocoso, which is Mexican Spanish for a snot-nosed brat.
Russell: Exactly. You go on social media and whenever you, I see discussions about present day police violence or people of color fighting against voting. I really see a simplistic view that Latinos are anti-Black. That Mexican Americans have anti-Black racism embedded in their identity. And no question, there is a tinge of anti-Blackness throughout Latino culture throughout Latinos. We know them personally, Gustavo, I don't know the word for them, but I call them primos, right? Here in Texas. But at the time, what this tells us about the battle of Puebla and Cinco de Mayo, is that there was an intellectual allyship between Latinos and African-Americans in their quest for liberation.
Russell: This would happen throughout American history at the same time in Texas. There's the underground railroad to Mexico. So Latinos, especially Mexican-American, saw themselves in kinship with African-Americans in their quest for freedom and the Cinco de Mayo commemoration, as it began, is part of that legacy.
Gustavo: We'll have more after this break.
BREAK 1 9:26
Gustavo: So Russell, at what point does Cinco de Mayo turn from this commemoration of Mexican valor into a bunch of drinking and drinko?
Russell: It happens over time. I mean, for years it's whenever Cinco de Mayo comes as celebrated as a civil war history. You have people dress up in civil war costumes and parade in downtown San Francisco. But after the Mexican revolution, when you have a new population come here to the United States, that connection to the civil war is lost. And over time, Mexican Americans, readopt the holiday as a David versus Goliath event and reminds this growing Mexican American population who's experiencing discrimination across the Southwest and the Midwest. And as I mentioned later on in 1978, when I'm four years old, a riot erupts in Houston on Cinco de Mayo // it was a combination of the euphoria around Cinco de Mayo and anger about police violence. //
Gustavo: Yeah. So what happened on that day then?
Russell: Well, the year before, in 1977, there was a man by the name of Joe Campos Torres. He was a Vietnam vet. It was a fight at a bar. Police were called. He was arrested. As he was being transported to what we thought would be a jail, the police officers beat him severely and then dump his body in the Buffalo Bayou, the long body of water that goes through Houston, Texas. He was found later, he died. And the city reerupped it in protest because this was another case of police officers beating Mexican Americans. In this case, a severe case of it. So for about a year and investigations, that turns out a year later, that authorities do not charge these guys, or they only indict them. And so these officers get off. Just so happens that when this announcement comes out, it's a year later around Cinco de Mayo.
Gustavo: Russell, where were you then?
Russell: I'm at a park, Moody Park and in Houston, Texas. This is north side. We're sitting there. There were revolutionary communist activists passing out flyers to all the revelers who were honoring Cinco de Mayo saying it's time for them to revolt. One thing happens. People get liquored up, get excited, a fight breaks out, a cop car comes, they overturn it. The riots began and my neighborhood erupted in flames.
Russell: I'm the same age of George Floyd. George Floyd lived across the city from me. When we go back to our townhouse in Houston, Texas. And you could look over the skyline and see my neighborhood in flames. A young George Floyd could look out and see Houston north sides, the smoke coming from the area because of the violence. This incident would dramatically change how Houston police departments handles its communities of color. There would be more diversity hiring and everything, and it sparked on Cinco de Mayo. So every time Cinco de Mayo comes up in Houston, Texas, it cannot be escaped from the legacy of Joe Campos Torres, and the Houston Police. It is embedded in the city's history now.
Gustavo: The events of the riot in 1978, those are the reasons for the riots are still around today. You got George Floyd, of course, but for Latinos, you had a, you know, Mario Gonzales who died after police had put a knee to his neck in Northern California. You had Adam Toledo in Chicago. You get Andres Guardado down here in Southern California, shot in the back by LA Sheriff's deputies. It continues that yet for you now, because of that, you're always going to connect Cinco de Mayo with police brutality.
Russell: It does. And I think anytime you're asking us to exercise some event that results in pride, you cannot escape where your conditions are in the United States. If you want to celebrate my Mexicanness in the United States, I have to put it in context about what we go through. And so it's not just Mario Gonzalez. It's a number of folks that have been victims of police brutality. Look, when you see an officer putting a neck on an African-American. It invokes images of things we know. Slavery, Jim Crow , discrimination after the civil rights movement. Because we lack so much knowledge about Latino history it doesn't invoke the same images. And when I say we, I'm not talking about you and I, you and I know, but it's not just Mario Gonzales. It's Antonio Venezuela in Las Cruces. It's Frank Alvarado, Jr. in Salinas. It's Adam Toledo in Chicago. It's Christopher Torres in Albuquerque. I can go on and on. And each of these cases, I see comments and it's so frustrating on social media where they say, why isn't this getting more attention? Why isn't the media writing about it? Well, if you Google it and these names. I've written about it, you've written about it. We're doing our job as journalists and writing about it and bringing attention. The readers aren't engaging with it. They're not making these connections.
Russell: So we as a society and as a culture and as journalists have to be vigilant and talk about these shootings and these cases of excessive force and put them in context. Because without it, we cannot engage in the same discourse that African-Americans are.
Gustavo: And then we as Latinos, when we celebrate our Mexicanos, when we celebrate Cinco de Mayo– sure, celebrate our Mexicanidad, but part of Mexicanidad in the United States is being violently repressed by not just the government, but also the police department.
Russell: Exactly. And so in the case of Joe Campos Torres in Houston, you cannot escape this reality of celebrating this day without looking back to see how far we've come. It may not be what corporations and what the city officials want, but that's the reality. And now with Mario Gonzalez, it's going to come up every year. When Cinco de Mayo comes up, Mario's plight, and what happened to him, will be etched in the Northern California community for a long time.
Gustavo: More...after the break.
BREAK 2 15:50
Gustavo: So Russell throughout this conversation, you've told us about the radical history of Cinco de Mayo. But you know, most people know Cinco de Drinko. They know it more like an American holiday. Even most Mexicans will be like nah, nah, nah it’s not real. They don't celebrate it in Mexico. So what does it mean that this day has been so removed from its radical roots?
Russell: It dilutes what its meaning is. Now we know that by the 1980s beer companies and companies in general, corporations were trying to figure out: How can we mark it and tap into this growing Hispanic, Latino market? Cinco de Mayo seemed to be very easy for them. To them, all they say: it's a holiday around something Mexican, let’s do something to show that we care about this community. So beer companies would have commercials. You have restaurants that have specials. And then more importantly, and I think this is it’s legacy that all of us, especially in LA can identify with. There's always a boxing match around the holiday.
AP CLIP Oscar de la Hoya
Russell: It's about a fight. Oscar de la Hoya would fight. Canelo would fight. Julio Cesar Chavez would fight. Boxing promoters would say: oh, wait, there's a bunch of Mexicans getting together on the weekend. They're drinking. They may not even know why they're getting together. Let's give them another reason. Let's put together a big fight. So by the time you get to the ‘90s and the 2000s, the holiday has lost all its political implications. It's only for the hardcore intellectuals, the nerds with glasses like you and I know the history. But for most folks it is just a day to get together to celebrate something Mexican. And then many wrongly believe it's Mexican Independence Day, which it's not.
Gustavo: So can anyone nowadays celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a clean conscience?
Russell: You know, I think that's a complicated question. I mean, it's, it's like, can we celebrate Juneteenth? Right? We should honor Juneteenth. But even in Houston, Juneteenth, the day that enslaved people in Galveston found out they were emancipated. It's become an African-American holiday where I come from and, and Euston, but many people now get together on Juneteenth as an excuse to drink as well. So you can have all these holidays, but if you lose the meaning, I think you're just, it's just a day off for you to gather and have some sort of social event. I think that it loses its meaning. And you can say the same thing about July 4th and Memorial Day.
Russell: I think what's needed is a reeducation about what went on on Cinco de Mayo and its legacy, not just for people of Mexican origin, but for Latinos in general, and for African-Americans. This day cannot be divorced from if you look at its history. But it is divorced from that if all you think about is the latest fight, what kind of IPA you can get on sale and what can be done just to relax and hang out at home.
Gustavo: So can you put all that in a tequila bottle and shoot it down?
Russell: I think you can, but maybe in a CBD hit, if you need to drink after the holiday and you could just go to sleep and just wait for Cinco de Mayo the next year.
Gustavo: All right, man. Thanks for talking to me.
Russell: Absolutely. Good luck on the podcast.
BREAK 3 18:57
Gustavo: And that’s it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times.
Denise Guerra was the jefa on this episode…it was the third episode we ever did back in the day and look at us now.
Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Brousalian, David Toledo, Ashlea Brown, and Angel Carreras. Our editorial assistants are Madalyn Amato and Carlos De Loera. Our engineer is Mario Diaz. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.
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And I celebrate Cinco de Mayo every year…not because of any history, because it’s my wife’s birthday. Happy Cinco Delilah, honey.
I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias. Drink your mezcal. Don’t drink and drive.
Gustavo: And that's it for this episode at the time. Daily news from the LA times tomorrow, the times will bring you what story about the slow implosion of the golden globe and what this means for the movies you scream. Our show is produced by Shannon Linz, Stephen ake, web, us and Denise ghetto. Our executive producer is Abby Fincher Swanson, our engineers, Mario Diaz, and our theme music is by Andrew, Ethan.
Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arianne. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and this model grass. Yes.