It’s easy to remember what day Cinco de Mayo is celebrated, but the true meaning behind it seems to have been forgotten.
To find out more, we spoke with Margarita De Antuñano, the founder and director of the Canada-Mexico Cultural Exchange Centre in Toronto.
Born and raised in Mexico, De Antuñano moved to Canada at 23 to attend to the University of Toronto. In her 25 years since living Canada, she noticed that May 5 meant dramatically different things in her old home versus her new one. Here are the biggest misconceptions about Cinco de Mayo that De Antuñano wants Canadians to know:
The day commemorates a big moment in Mexican history
Despite our tendency to mark this day with stereotypical Mexican tropes like mariachi bands and margaritas, Cinco de Mayo actually marks a moment of pride in Mexican history. On May 5, 1862, Mexican troops defeated the French, despite being outnumbered, undersupplied and just generally regarded as the underdog for a battle in Puebla de Los Angeles. The victory did not end the Mexican-French War or even really help Mexico strategically, but it went down in history as a proud day. Historically, De Antuñano says it’s much like the way that Canadians regard the War of 1812—a day when, against all odds, the nation was able to stand strong and protect itself against invaders.
No, May 5 is not Mexico’s Independence Day
Cinco de Mayo may be the major Mexican holiday on many people’s social calendars, but it is far from the most significant. “This is not Independence Day,” explains De Antuñano. “First of all, Mexico got independence from Spain and that happened in 1810, before the battle celebrated by Cinco de Mayo.” Mexicans celebrate their independence on September 15 and 16.
The holiday also has nothing to do with margaritas
The classic menu of nachos, guacamole and tequila-based bevvies is in no way tied to the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo, explains De Antuñano. To her knowledge, there are no specific dishes or drinks that are truly connected to the day.
Cinco de Mayo isn’t a big deal in Mexico
Like the War of 1812, the victory in Puebla was important to history, but it is not necessarily a major commemorative event. Growing up in Mexico, De Antuñano says the state holiday of Cinco de Mayo was just like any other civic holiday here in Canada. “In Mexico people do not care about it,” she says. “It’s common for people, particularly younger people, to not even know about it.” The exception, De Antuñano notes, is in the the state of Puebla and Puebla City, where the battle originally took place. Located in the southeast of Mexico, Puebla celebrates Cinco de Mayo with a parade and theatrical performances recounting the battle.
The event is more important for Mexicans outside of Mexico
Like St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo is a culturally significant day that has been appropriated as a binge-drinking, stereotype-riddled festivus for the rest of us. However, De Antuñano says she is not offended by restaurants and bars that use Cinco de Mayo as a way of drawing patrons. “I’m not bothered by the fact that it’s commercial now,” she says “It’s a way of opening the conversation to get to know what really happened and get to know more about Mexico.”
Even though Cinco de Mayo isn’t widely (or wildly) celebrated in Mexico, De Antuñano says she understands why it has become a big day in other nations. “I think that when you step out of your native country, then you start appreciating your country more,” she says. “I think Cinco de Mayo is more of a celebration outside of Mexico for Mexicans as a tribute to Mexico. It’s more of a day of Mexican heritage and strength.”
Last year, De Antuñano marked May 5 by attending her Canadian friend’s Cinco de Mayo potluck party and bringing some authentic Mexican dishes. This year, she is celebrating by starting a class to teach Spanish speakers how to become foreign language educators.
“As a Mexican, it’s an honour that people think of Mexico and they’re trying to embrace the culture and celebrate something they know we’re happy about, even if they might not know what it is,” she says. “I join in the joy.”
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