'Tis the season to fiesta, and people are full of it. When the shot of tequila can be heard around the world. The sound of accordions is in the air. Mariachi musicians running amok everywhere. A little boy and his father hang their pinata with care in hopes that Budweiser girls soon will be there. Latinos parade and party in the street, with L.A. cops wrapped in riot gear from the tops of their heads to the tips of their feet. . . .
Yes, it's that time of the year when the stores are decorated in seasonal red, white and green. Every park and / or venue event is sponsored by one of the many beer companies. Edward James Olmos can be seen, broom in hand, sweeping downtown. Local news crews are vying for camera positions on Olvera Street. Politicians are waving sombreros and seeking the Latino vote. Every TV and / or radio talk show host has at least one Latino scheduled as his or her guest. Regis and Kathie Lee are dancing the Macarena (again!), and there's an article in the Los Angeles Times by a would-be comic, some a.k.a. Pablo guy. It's Cinco de Mayhem!
Before I continue to rave on, let me preface this essay with a little history of the origin of Cinco de Mayo. The commemoration of Cinco de Mayo was an offspring of the Chicano studies programs that were established by the Cal State Los Angeles faculty in the late '60s. The premise was to introduce Mexican cultural arts and history into the annual curriculum of California classrooms. The obvious choice would have been to observe Sept. 16, Mexican Independence Day. But since that date falls in the same week that the school year starts, it did not allow any time for teachers to prepare lessons.
The obvious second choice would have been to celebrate the Dia de la Revolucion. But no, instead, someone in his infinite wisdom picked the day of Gen. Zaragosa's victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla--cinco de Mayo, 1875. Big deal. We beat the French in one out of 30 battles. The French had been kicking our mestizo asses for years (and started right back at it on seis de Mayo, 1875).
There was no love lost between the Mexicans and the French. The conflict started when the French stole the Mexican recipe for pan dulce and renamed it French bread and French pastry. But Mexicans mostly deplored the French for proclaiming Jerry Lewis as the king of comedy. This was blasphemous to Mexicanos who were faithful subjects of El Rey Cantinflas. It was the beginning of the end when the French (a.k.a. Jerry's kids) raided the Puebla Plaza Theatre and held Mexicanos hostage, torturing them by forcing them to watch "The Bellboy"--written by, produced by, directed by and starring Jerry Lewis--over and over. It wasn't pretty. This was the pivotal point. La raza could not take it anymore.
The truth of the matter: It was the United States that drove the French out of Mexico. It's not that Americans were all that concerned for the well-being of their southern neighbors. The U.S. just believed the French had kicked Mexico around long enough, and it was their turn now.
In the late '60s, at the beginning of this ritual, there were a few gatherings around the state, in pockets of Latino communities. Nothing to write home to Mexico about. In fact, the police dispersed most of the gatherings and busted Latinos for illegal assembly.
Now, depending on which day the fifth of May falls on, Cinco de Mayo can go on for one or two weeks. This year, Cinco de Mayo actually started in April with Fiesta Broadway and continues through the ninth de Mayo. "Cinco de Mayo" means as little to me as "tres de Mayo" or "cuatro de Mayo." People living in Mexico do not even observe Cinco de Mayo. It would be like Mexico celebrating the Battle of the Bulge. I remember asking my Dad, "Pop, what does Cinco de Mayo mean?" He retorted, "Asparagus picking in El Centro?"
Again, the idea behind this event was to share the beauty of the Mexican cultural arts--which is just where this pseudo fiesta has failed tremendously. Cinco de Mayo has turned into an annual keg party where politicians and corporations lock target on Latinos as consumers. Like when Gerald Ford showed up campaigning in East L.A. and ate tamales with the corn husk wrappers and all.
Curious about what the lesson is here, I asked some of my nieces and nephews what Cinco de Mayo means to them. Ten-year-old Jorge immediately replied: "Red, white and green eggs with confetti in them. They have them every year at my school." I immediately quoted Dr. Seuss: "I do not like green eggs and ham. . . . I do not like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sam I am." My kooky teenage niece Melida asked me, "Isn't Cinco de Mayo the day that the Chihuahua comes out and checks his shadow to see how many more days of Cinco de Mayo there'll be this year?" I asked a 6-year-old boy what Cinco de Mayo means to him. He pondered it for a moment, then with great pride answered: "The fifth of May." Out of the mouths of babes.