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5 things to know about Cinco de Mayo

ASU experts: Cinco de Mayo has been commercialized, and many don't recognize it.
May 4, 2017

ASU experts in Mexican-American history discuss the holiday's origins and evolution

So you think Cinco de Mayo is a made-up holiday contrived to sell stereotypically Mexican bar food and alcohol to gringos? Turns out, you’re mostly right, according Arizona State University Professor Alexander Aviña.

Aviña, who teaches history in the university’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, says the holiday started to grow beyond the Mexican-American community in the Southwest in the late 1980s when Latino-focused advertisers saw an opportunity.

“Business people saw that the Mexican-American community in the US was gaining in consumption power, and the thing is once you do that you open it up for everybody and it becomes totally commercialized,” Aviña said. 

To learn more about this holiday that has changed drastically in the last 30 years, ASU Now spoke with a pair of experts on Mexican-American history. Aviña, who teaches Mexican history, and Professor Monica De La Torre, who teaches media in the School of Transborder Studies, helped provide this list of things to know about Cinco de Mayo:

1. It’s not Mexican Independence Day.

Old Cinco de Mayo poster

Mexican Independence Day is in September and celebrates the nation's liberation from Spain in 1810.

Cinco de Mayo recalls a skirmish more than 50 years later, the Battle of Puebla, when Mexico was fighting against a French invasion. A ragtag group of Mexican workers and farmers joined up with an outmatched army unit to take down one of the strongest military powers of the day — at least in one battle.

A French expeditionary force, Aviña said, was “defeated by a combination of underfunded, undertrained professional army and a bunch of irregular guerilla fighters who were peasants — and dressed like peasants — and had an assortment of bad, bad weaponry,” including machetes and slingshots. 

The invaders, meanwhile, would have had muskets and cannons, and “they totally underestimated the tactical awareness of (Mexico’s Gen. Ignacio) Zaragoza and the fighting spirit of these Mexican fighters.   

 2. The Battle of Puebla was just the start.


"The Execution of Emperor Maximilian" oil painting by Édouard Manet. Courtesy of the Yorck Project

That victory was the only success against the French, who proceeded to overtake Mexico and rule from 1862 to 1867, by installing the only European royal “crazy enough,” Aviña said, to take the job: Emperor Maximilian I.

As the U.S. Civil War was winding down, the U.S. government was able to turn its attention to the French and wanted them out of North America. Also, France’s standing in Europe was being jeopardized by a unifying Germany.

Napoleon Bonaparte decided to withdraw troops from Mexico. Maximilian, an Austrian loyal to France, however, chose to stay.

Maximilian “arrives in Mexico, he rules for a couple of years, he alienates everybody because he’s too liberal for the conservatives, and the Mexican liberals are in no way going to accept an emperor installed by a foreign force,” Aviña said.

Maximilian was executed in 1867, and the only traces remaining of the French occupation were the baguette used in torta sandwiches or the crepes used to prepare crepas de huitlacoche.

3. The battle is commemorated in Texas.

Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza

A portrait of Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza. Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

Zaragoza was born in modern-day Texas, and his birthplace is commemorated in what today is Goliad State Park, where the U.S. government rebuilt his birth home.

The people of Puebla, Mexico, near Mexico City, the site of the famous battle, established a 10-foot bronze statue of Zaragoza in 1980. 

Zaragoza’s second-in-command during the battle was no other than Profirio Díaz, who helped depose Maximilian and became the ruler of Mexico for the next 35 years.

He was so heavy-handed that he “causes the explosion of the Mexican revolution in 1910,” Aviña said, effectively setting up the government system that exists today.

4. It's been celebrated ever since — but not like this.

As early as 1865, Spanish-language newspapers in the U.S. West show committees being formed to raise funds and awareness against the French occupation. The communities from California to Texas these publications served had become American overnight with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, and this was their way of exerting influence on a nation with which they continued to identify.

“Cinco de Mayo during the 1860s as it's celebrated or commemorated in places like California really helped developed what historians refer to as a greater Mexican identity, so a Mexican identity that goes beyond borders,” Aviña said.

In the ’60s and ’70s, the Chicano Movement revived the holiday, Aviña said: “It’s part of recuperating parts of a Mexican past that will give some sort of national pride and dignity to people who have been oppressed racially and treated like second-class citizens in the U.S.”

5. It's been increasingly commercialized.

Cinco de Mayo

People gathered downtown recently to listen to Entre Mujeres, a trans-local music composition project between Chicanas/Latinas in the U.S. and Jarochas/Mexican female musicians in Mexico. Entre Mujeres project includesTylana Enomoto of Quetzal, among others. Photo by Tim Trumble/ASU.

As the holiday became commercialized in the ’80s and ’90s, the Mexican-American community largely ceased to identify with it, Aviña said.

Monetizing the one and only Mexican-American holiday means tacos, tequila and mariachi music — which is problematic, De La Torre said.  

She sees the holiday as it’s celebrated today as a missed opportunity to actually connect.

“It’s an unjust stereotype to say that Mexican food is only beer, tequila, tacos and salsa. Instead of only listening to mariachi on Cinco de Mayo, you should listen to other bands. Chicano Batman is a great band; Quetzal is a great band.”

De La Torre suggests that it's OK to celebrate the holiday, but make sure you're learning more about it as you do. 

Aviña, meanwhile, said, “I’m going to probably put posts on Facebook about offensive use of Mexican dress and costume.”

Postcards from the ledge

Hoover Dam excursion for Pakistani scholars bridges knowledge, culture

May 4, 2017

A group of 27 Pakistani engineering scholars from the U.S.-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Energy, better known as USPCAS-E, set off on an adventure over spring break, learning what nature can engineer, what people can engineer and the power their imagination has to inspire innovation.

An $18 million United States Agency for International Development grant supports the project with Arizona State University as the hub for the energy component of the project in partnership with the National University of Science and Technology — Islamabad (NUST), the University of Engineering and Technology in Peshawar and Oregon State University. “Big dams in Pakistan are normally earth and rock fill dams, so there is a need to build concrete arc dams like Hoover Dam in Pakistan that are more impressive, efficient and modern,“  says Muhammad Ahsan Amjed, NUST. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Ahsan Amje “Big dams in Pakistan are normally earth and rock fill dams, so there is a need to build concrete arc dams like Hoover Dam in Pakistan that are more impressive, efficient and modern,“ say Muhammad Ahsan Amjed, National University of Science and Technology. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Ahsan Amjed Download Full Image

The scholars are part of the third cohort to visit the United States in order to study renewable energy at ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering as part of a larger effort to boost development of solutions for Pakistan’s growing energy needs. Spring break offered a respite from their classes and lab work, and provided a chance to see engineering in action.

The scholars kicked off their journey by visiting one of nature’s greatest engineering wonders, the Grand Canyon. The canyon stood as a compelling example of the power found in nature, as seen by the river carving away at the landscape for millennia. The challenge for the scholars was to learn from nature and learn how to harness that energy.

Their next stop at Hoover Dam illustrated just that. The scholars saw first hand how the Colorado River was used as a source of renewable hydroelectric power through ingenuous civil engineering.

USPCAS-E Scholars, Left to right: Farah Akram, Anam Zahra, Maham Akhlaq, Atoofa Zainab, Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

“The sheer brilliance that the engineers displayed in [their] era with such a megastructure was a rarity, [and] is a sight to behold. It solved the water distribution problems for seven different states,” said Haider Saif Agha from NUST.

Learning about this pinnacle of clean energy was key for the scholars because many of them are studying photovoltaic, wind and hydroelectric energy options. The USPCAS-E project set out to explore renewable energy as a means for resolving the energy crisis happening in Pakistan today, leaving the country with rolling blackouts that last 6–16 hours a day.

The dam was created for the purposes of flood control, irrigation and power production, all of which are applicable to Pakistan’s needs.

“I see a comparison with Pakistan’s Kalabagh Dam,” said Asfand Yar Ali, of the University of Engineering and Technology, Peshawar. Kalabagh Dam is proposed dam that could help Pakistan with flood control. “We are facing minor and major floods every year in [the] monsoon [season]. Similarly, the dam will help Pakistan rejuvenate its agriculture and overcome [the] energy crisis.“

Hoover Dam was an example of what could be implemented back home for the scholars.

“I learned that we can solve all of our country’s energy problems by just mixing innovation and engineering in the right proportions,” said Usman Salahuddin of NUST.

To shake things up, the scholars next visited the California Science Center. Atoofa Zainab of NUST had a personal favorite there – the earthquake simulator.

“I learned about the how certain buildings are made in case of an earthquake. The lesson that I learned is that Pakistan is in dire need of these types of services and technologies.”

Inspiring the heart and the exchange of culture

Inside Hoover Dam. Photo credit: Usama Khalid, NUST/ASU.

Though engineering is the primary point of USPCAS-E, other aspects of the initiative like promoting gender equality and engaging in cultural exchange are key aspects as well. The scholars expressed heartfelt thanks to be a part of a program that educates not just their inner engineer, but also cements their role as a global citizen.

“I have honestly no words to define my experience I had on spring break. It was both fun and a learning experience,” said Farah Akram of NUST. “The places we visited showed us a new face of the world. The views of the Grand Canyon, [the] innovative construction of Hoover Dam, fun and virtual reality-based rides of Universal Studios, learning at the California Science Center and [having a] playful time in Santa Monica gave us the most beautiful time of our lives.”

“Something that really impacted my heart was the celebration of diversity in America. America celebrates its diversity, be it in L.A., Tempe, Las Vegas or any other city. I was impacted by views on tolerance, freedom of speech, action,” reflected Haider Saif Agha of NUST.

Muhammad Ahsan Amjed of NUST ruminated that, “if you really want to understand the culture and people of any particular area, you will have to travel across that region in order to better understand their traditions, their peculiarities, cultural idiosyncrasies [and] subtle differences in their way of living. Such excursions help us renew our perspective about our research, our lives and our goals.”

The cultural exchange component of the program provides unlimited opportunity for visitors and Americans to engage with each other, allows visitors to find their place in the global community, breaks down prejudices and misunderstandings, and in the long-term expands and strengthens relationships between the two countries.

Erika Gronek

Communications Specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering