May 5th is Cinco de Mayo. In the world of produce, it is one of the biggest days for avocado sales, sometimes even exceeding sales during Super Bowl week. What I find interesting about this holiday is how few people actually know or understand what this holiday is really about. I don’t want to bore you with too much history (and it’s quite complex for that matter), but if we are going to celebrate a holiday, well . . . we should know what we’re celebrating! And, if you have already guessed Mexican Independence Day (as many do) you are incorrect.
The short version of the story goes something like this: The French Emperor Napoleon III, was eager to surpass the glories of the first Napoleon. During the early 1860’s, Napoleon’s army was said to be the finest in Europe and he had been advised that a French invasion of Mexico was feasible and that French forces would be warmly welcomed by the Mexican people. In April 1861, the United States had become engulfed in its own Civil War and was not likely to offer much opposition to a French invasion. On April 19, 1862, 6,000 French troops set out to capture Mexico City. On May 4, they were heading towards the town of Puebla – halfway between the coast and Mexico City. The next day, the Mexican forces set out to attack the French forces before they arrived. The Mexican soldiers, lacking battlefield experience and armed with outdated artillery and muskets, attacked with determination and fervor. In a 4-hour battle, the Mexicans suffered only 250 casualties, while inflicting heavy losses on the French. Losing nearly a thousand men, the French withdrew back to the coast to await reinforcements. Fifty thousand Mexicans ultimately lost their lives fighting the French forces who remained in Mexico until 1867. But the experience on the May 5, 1862, however tragic and costly, led to the beginning of a national self-esteem that became vital to the survival of Mexico. In time, Cinco de Mayo came to symbolize national pride and the triumph of the people over foreign occupation.
The United States strongly supported the Mexican government’s resistance to the French occupation and the people of Mexico never forgot this. In gratitude, thousands of Mexicans crossed the border after the attack on Pearl Harbor to join the U.S. Armed Forces. As recently as the Persian Gulf War, Mexicans flooded American consulates with phone calls, trying to join in and help fight with the U.S.
Of course, all of this seems incredibly ironic and tragic in lieu of much of the heated immigration debate that has now taken center stage in this country. Next Wednesday, as we celebrate Cinco de Mayo, by all means, please indulge and enjoy some serious avocado eating . . . but also remember what this day is really about. It’s much more than just beer and salsa.