From Cinco de Mayo’s Little-Known History to Its Celebrated Food (and Drink)

With over 31 million Mexicans in the United States, or 10.3 percent of the population — and just under 320,000, or 4 percent, in New York City — Cinco de Mayo has become an American celebration as well.

State of Puebla in Mexico (Image from Wikipedia)

Though they’re happy to celebrate it, many gringos seem to mistakenly think that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day — or an homage to the blessed margarita cocktail.

In fact, the anniversary of Mexico declaring independence from Spain back in 1810 is September 16. And while the 5th of May is a national holiday in Mexico, most of the celebrations take place only in the city and state of Puebla, located in the southern half of the country. That the holiday has found its way onto the American festival calendar is an indication that many Mexican immigrants came from that area, where the holiday has its roots.

Diana R. Gordon at Long Island Wins provides a detailed history of Cinco de Mayo.

In 1862, the country had been weakened by wars (including the Mexican-American war that ended in conceding the state of Texas to the United States) and internal political conflicts.

When Benito Juarez became President in 1861 the country was in financial ruin, the result of a four-year civil war that had left Mexico massively in debt to several European countries. With the backing of the Congress of the Republic, he issued a moratorium on payment of foreign debt.

Although both Britain and Spain briefly intervened militarily (and unsuccessfully) to collect their debt, France saw the country’s vulnerability as a fine opportunity for a larger adventure—establishing an empire in the New World. The invasion began in late 1861, with French troops landing at Vera Cruz and advancing north over the next few months. For a time, French grandiosity seemed likely to trump Mexican republicanism, as a French-backed emperor, Maximilian I of Mexico, installed a government seat in Mexico City from 1864-1867. But in 1867, Maximilian was captured and executed and the so-called Second Mexican Empire collapsed.

The significance of Cinco de Mayo goes back to the beginning of the French occupation. On May 5, 1862, a French general heading toward the conquest of Mexico City made the mistake of attacking the city of Puebla from the fortified north and, as a result, suffered a humiliating defeat. In a single day, he lost almost 500 men, while only 83 Mexicans died, although theirs was a ragged army of republicans only recently recruited for military service.

The victory was short-lived, but it delayed the French as they pressed on to occupy Mexico City and the north. And it remains a symbol of national strength for Mexicans everywhere. Rocio says, “When the country had all this debt and fell into crisis and the French wanted to attack and expand their territory…it’s a source of pride that we could still be more powerful than such a large country.”

Javier goes even farther in noting the victory’s significance: “We discovered that maybe the French weren’t so superior—more disciplined, more organized. It was a step in the recognition of Mexico as a free, sovereign country that had its own laws and customs and couldn’t be governed by others.”

Rafael Moreno Valle (middle) applauded the decision to make Puebla and New York sister states. (Photo via Diario de Mexico)

The governor of the state of Puebla, Rafael Moreno Valle, visited New York on May 2, where he attended a ceremony at the Mexican Consulate that officially made Puebla a sister state to New York, with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Diario de México reported. Valle said that Cinco de Mayo in the United States has become not just a holiday for Mexicans but for all Latinos, as the problems that Mexico confronts are shared by all the countries in the region.

On a related note, we put up a translation of a Queens Latino article a couple weeks ago on a Latino organization in New York that hopes the upcoming Cinco de Mayo celebration in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens will unite all the city’s Latino communities.

No Cinco de Mayo would be complete without the food. Manhattan Times profiles the Upper Manhattan eatery Junior’s Tacos — located at 253 Sherman Avenue in Inwood — and its owner Adrian Fernandez who comes from the state of Michoacán in Western Mexico. Junior’s Tacos brings a plethora of filling choices to the taco — not to mention the quesadilla, burrito and other traditional Mexican foods.

Adrian Fernandez, owner of Junior’s Tacos at Inwood (Photo by Isaacc García/Manhattan Times)

“No matter what filling, no matter what toppings, people love our tacos, maybe too much,” laughed Fernandez.

And with the variety available, it’s little wonder that people are enamored of the densely packed, warm pockets that can be filled with, among other options: chorizo, steak, ground beef, chicken, tinga, carnitas, and tongue.

All meats are richly seasoned with traditional spices and herbs: garlic, onion, cumin, ancho chile, oregano, and cilantro – among others.

The tacos are accompanied with another set of tasty choices: classic salsa verde, a red salsa, crema Mexicana, and of course, guacamole.

As the restaurant has only been open for seven months, this is the first Cinco de Mayo Junior’s Tacos will celebrate. The staff has been preparing for weeks now, and festivities will hit a peak that day, especially when it comes to the margarita.

Enjoy a margarita at Junior’s Tacos (Photo by Isaacc García/Manhattan Times)

“The holiday is more celebrated here than there,” said Fernandez. “So we are going to do it big. We will have Mariachis and margarita specials.”

The classic Mexican cocktail has been given the same careful, and detailed, attention at Junior’s.

The traditional Mexican drink is, of course, composed with Tequila, a distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant and named after the county in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where it originated.

Junior’s boasts an impressive collection of Tequilas for connoisseurs.

“We sell a lot of margaritas with different fruit flavors and the people love it,” said Fernandez. Besides the original classic lime margarita, there are specific recipes for layered drinks that include refreshing flavors such as maracuyá, mango, guayaba, guanábana, pineapple, tamarind, y zarzamora.

Celebrations aside, Fernandez opened Junior’s Tacos to bring a taste of Mexico to northern Manhattan. “This is why I did this,” he said, “so that people could get to know the flavors of my country.”

Speaking of food, if you can read Spanish, El Diario/La Prensa has some recipes for traditional Mexican dishes.

The publication also ran an editorial by Jesus Del Toro, including this sober reminder:

The celebration of Cinco de Mayo in the United States is connected to the Chicano and Latino fight for rights and against discrimination. That Hispanic aspect of the holiday is original, it still prevails, and it is very important. Cinco de Mayo in this country is also an example of community organizing that goes beyond how certain companies — especially those of alcoholic drinks — have used and abused the holiday.

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