Plenty are ignorant in U.S. about Cinco de Mayo

The Fifth of May celebrates a Mexican military victory, but to many Americans it just means parties.
Wednesday, May 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:49 a.m. CDT, Friday, June 27, 2008

Tonight, MU senior Brett Settle plans to head down to a Mexican restaurant for the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration.

“It’s fun and everybody just has a good time with it,” said Settle, who plans to go to Chevy’s Fresh Mex or La Tolteca.

But ask Settle what he knows about the occasion he’s celebrating and he’s not quite as sure.

“I don’t really know too much,” he said. “It’s like just a lot of beer drinking, a lot of Mexican music and stuff.”

Settle is just one of the large number of people ignorant about the meaning of Cinco de Mayo. Spanish for “Fifth of May,” it observes the victory of Mexican troops over the powerful French army in 1862. Despite being outnumbered almost two to one, the Mexicans outfought the French and forced them to retreat.

Oscar Chavez, an MU postdoctoral student in mathematics education from Mexico, said that although he does not celebrate the holiday, he understands why people do.

“Mexicans living here might feel good about remembering the battle when an underdog defeated a very powerful army,” he said.

Chavez said his best guess for the rise in prominence of Cinco de Mayo in the United States is that it instills in people a sense of pride and patriotism in a way that Mexican independence in 1810 doesn’t.

“Mexican independence was a very long war against a European power that was already declining, “ he said. “The defeat of the French is perhaps more significant to people because it was a very powerful army at the time.”

But Chavez, who came to the United States five years ago, said “in Mexico, May the fifth is just a regular day. Some years ago, children would go to school on May the fifth, although it was a national holiday, because there wouldn’t be any parties in anybody’s homes.”

But it’s those parties in America that have allowed the festival to evolve into one widely associated with Mexican beer drinking and partying. David Clement, manager of Chevy’s Fresh Mex, said that the restaurant has organized celebrations for Cinco de Mayo for the past five years and that last year about 5,000 people turned out.

“It’s our biggest night of the year,” he said, adding that the restaurant sees a 25 percent increase in attendance every year.

He is not surprised, though.

“Mexican culture has come to the forefront of the United States because of the large numbers of people coming from Mexico,” Clement said.

He said the restaurant had been decorated for the celebration a month ago and people were curious about what the festival was. One day, Clement said, he received about 100 requests from customers asking what Cinco de Mayo meant.

Annie Murphy, a waitress who has worked at Chevy’s for two years, said she thought Cinco de Mayo was a celebration of Mexican Independence Day. Like many Americans, she admits to being misinformed about the origins of the holiday. She thought people should at least try to learn what the day means if they are going to use it as a reason to party.

“It’s probably a little disrespectful that people just use it as an excuse to celebrate,” she said.

Hispanic leaders hope that kind of information will increase people’s understanding of the holiday and bring the two groups together.

“Cinco de Mayo is the only holiday that has become a unifying force for the Latino people in the United States,” said Domingo Martinez Castilla, ex-president of the MU Hispanic and Latin American Faculty and Staff Association. “It celebrates cultural heritage first, then diversity.”

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