By Juan Sempere
You checked your calendar and noticed that May 5th is right around the corner, and your heart skipped a beat because you know what that means: Hard-partying people wearing Mexican sombreros… Bottomless bowls of chips and guac… Shot after shot of Tequila… Colorful piñatas hanging from the roof of your preferred watering hole… That’s right, it’s Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican national holiday that everyone knows and loves!
Settle down, my amigos, it’s not quite like that. Granted, Cinco de Mayo is a huge deal in America, but oddly enough in Mexico it doesn’t carry the same panache. That doesn’t mean you should stop yourself from getting loose with a few cold beers and some pico de gallo – or even choosing to shoot over to Cancun to celebrate – but we’ll let you in on a few secrets that will give new significance to this annual event. So grab another taquito and listen up…
It doesn’t commemorate Mexican Independence, rather a military victory over the French.
Back in 1862, Mexico was battling French occupation and managed to hand the armies of Napoleon III an important defeat on the outskirts of Puebla, a major city near the capital, leading the way to the ultimate defeat of the Europeans. At the time France was a major military power, so the battlefield victory for the Mexicans was a major point of national pride. Still, you’ll be surprised where the partying tradition came from…
California knows how to fiesta.
That’s right, historians from UCLA found out that the first true celebration of the victory at Puebla came from Mexican miners working in California, who jubilantly fired weapons and fireworks into the air as soon as they got the news of the invaders’ defeat. The date became an annual celebratory tradition within the Hispanic population of the West Coast, and started getting traction all over the USA midway through the 20th century.
That doesn’t mean that Cinco de Mayo is irrelevant in Mexico.
In fact, it was considered a national holiday for a long time, and nowadays it’s still an official holiday in Puebla and neighboring Veracruz. The poblanos hold a major parade every year to honor the valiant troops that fought on that fateful day. And yes, it has understandably become a reason for partying and getting silly in most of Mexico’s major tourist destinations, since people the world over are now aware of the date and its relevance.
In fact, you should bring a little Poblano flavor into your Cinco de Mayo.
While pasita –a sweet raisin liqueur that hails from Puebla– may be nearly impossible to find outside its city of origin, another poblano libation is slowly conquering bars all over the world. It’s called Ancho Reyes, a menjurje (slang for homemade liqueur) whose recipe was rediscovered a few years ago and is now quite popular with mixologists. The spicy spirit is made from Ancho chile (the original version) or Poblano (the newer, green-hued concoction), and both versions deliver a noticeable kick with every sip. Their website has links to vendors near your area.
And don’t settle for boring nachos, either.
Puebla does two things amazingly right: mole and cemitas. The spicy mole sauce may be more familiar to you, so we strongly suggest you try the cemita this Cinco de Mayo. It’s an overstuffed sandwich served on a hard, round roll with sesame seeds (think of the texture of the Kaiser roll but with the shape of a hamburger bun), filled with milanesa (thin cutlets of beef, pork or chicken, breaded and fried), lots of mashed avocado, white onion, chipotle chilies, and a mound of shredded Oaxaca cheese (string cheese will do in a pinch). Another key ingredient is Pápalo, but be aware that this herb is widely considered to be an acquired taste, so try it on its own before adding it to your cemita. Finish one and you’ll feel brave enough to face the French army, too.
All in all, have fun.
There you have it, while Cinco de Mayo might not be the most traditional of Mexican holidays, there’s something cool about it being a date that bonds countries together under the common ground of partying and letting our collective hair down. So grab your cerveza, learn a few songs that are not ‘Cielito Lindo’ (dearly departed artists like Selena and Juan Gabriel will score a hit at any Mexican joint) and party on! After all, SEIS de Mayo falls on a Sunday this year.