Why We Celebrate Cinco de Mayo

Josie Ortega says every family can celebrate Cinco de Mayo, learning about Mexican-American culture while sharing great food, music, and family togetherness.

What Is Cinco de Mayo?

For those who don’t habla español, Cinco de Mayo literally translates, “Fifth of May” in Spanish.

To be honest, Cinco de Mayo feels kind of like a fake holiday, launched into prominence more by cerveza companies than by Mexicans. It is not Mexican Independence Day; that honor belongs to September 16. No, May 5 commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla. As it happens, my father-in-law’s family comes from Puebla, and I’ve been there! It’s a beautiful city in central Mexico, where General Ignacio Zaragoza led Mexican soldiers to defeat the well-armed French forces—in the Franco-Mexican war they ultimately lost, but who’s counting.

May 5 was celebrated in California (which had become a U.S. possession in 1848) in the 19th century in the years following the Battle of Puebla. Later, Cinco de Mayo celebrations came to represent Mexican American pride when Los Angeles Chicanos embraced the holiday in the 1940s. The holiday picked up steam across the country, with help from marketers, in the 80s, and now many people compare Cinco de Mayo for Mexican-Americans to St. Patrick’s Day for descendants of Irish immigrants. By the way, there are Mexican families who have been here in the United States way longer than most Americans! But who’s counting?

And whether or not a person has Mexican heritage or in-laws like I do, we all can recognize and enjoy the traditions and gifts that Mexico has given to the world. Chocolate! Popcorn, chewing gum, Richie Valens . . . and certainly TACOS. Again, who’s counting? No need to count. The food alone is life-changing.

Yours truly, developing a deeper appreciation of Mexican culture in the state of Puebla.

Celebrate Mexican Culture on Cinco de Mayo!

Americans may feel strange embracing a Mexican holiday (though May 5 is not a major national holiday in Mexico). On one end of the spectrum, Americans may balk at seeing the Mexican flag waved in U.S. parades, and on the other, some people are afraid of being accused of cultural appropriation. My take: I see no problem with us celebrating, not necessarily another nation’s military victory, but the intertwined history and culture that we share with our southern neighbor.

American heritage, after all, is one big mash-up. Our cultural inheritance from England is strong, true. But Spain was all over what’s now the western United States at the same time, and let’s not forget Native American culture, enslaved Africans, or French colonial influence (ever heard of Six Flags over Texas?). Similarly, Mexican culture fuses both indigenous and European influence.

Just like personality types or families of origin, all cultures have both positive and negative characteristics, and we can decide to let go of some of things while embracing others. It’s important to note, too, that many characteristics are value-neutral, just different from one person and one culture to another.

I want to celebrate my own heritage, while being free to adopt new ideas, practices, and of course, food, from others. How fortunate I am to live in the United States! Here we can enjoy, for example: Taco Tuesday, Pasta Wednesday, and Fried Rice Friday! For me, evidently, it all comes back to food.

Celebrate Multicultural Fusion

Marrying into a Mexican family, and subsequently raising multicultural children, has been fun and fascinating. I’ve connected with a new-to-me culture, witnessing again that the art of mixing can create some of the best results.

I was born in Memphis, where I saw tour buses full of Japanese and Swedish tourists driving down my childhood street, to see Elvis Presley’s pre-Graceland home. Elvis made rockabilly tunes that were influenced by both African-American rhythm and blues and gospel, as well as country music. When he brought that sound to the mainstream, the world went crazy.

Unexpected juxtapositions and challenges to conventional thinking can evolve into something powerful: delicious and delightful blends of music, food, and art.

While I like to focus on the beautiful (and tasty) results that evolve when people from different cultures live next to and among one another, I know that the history of culture-blending is not without pain, whether it’s in Memphis or Mexico. I don’t want to ignore that; I want to learn and talk about it. And, I still want to enjoy great food. Cinco de Mayo makes a great opportunity for sincere cultural appreciation.

Happily, my husband’s and my cultures of origin share some important, positive characteristics: love of food, hospitality, and having a good time.

Which begs the question: Aside from our own kitchen with Abuela cooking, what are the Ortega-approved favorite Mexican restaurants? Memphians: run, don’t walk, to Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana. Order the elote, and offer a prayer for me. Northern Virginians: try Tacos y Tortas La Chiquita on Columbia Pike in Arlington.

Live every day like it’s Taco Tuesday!

Celebrate the Every Day

All of us can benefit from the Mexican culture’s embrace of food and family.

I have a friend with a gaggle of young kids at home, who felt inspired and hopeful when she saw a neighbor family with two teenage kids walking home together. She said hello and asked what they were up to.

One of the kids shared excitedly, “It’s Taco Tuesday!”

“Oh, where?” My friend figured they had reservations at some hip, local restaurant . . . where one day she too could eat, as soon as her children could function out in public.

The teen replied: “Our kitchen!”

I love that! That’s the kind of family culture I want: everyday food celebrations, hospitality, togetherness, music. Now, let’s crank up that Elvis, Selena, Otis Redding, and mariachi playlist!

Whether it’s a Cinco de Mayo fiesta, Taco Tuesday, or indeed, any day of the week, it’s a great day for families to learn, play, and eat together. Does your family celebrate any Cinco de Mayo traditions? Piñatas? Traditional Mexican food? Make plans and share recipes using FamilyApp!

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