Some years ago I was walking through the kitchen of the restaurant where I was working about this time of year. I walked up and swiped my employee card, punching in for my day. Surrounding the time clock were several cooks that I knew were from near Ixtapa inMexico, who were also waiting to swipe their cards.
“Hola,” I said, virtually exhausting the extent of my non-food related Spanish.
“How are you?” they responded.
We stood there, adjusting our various uniforms in an uncomfortable silence. Being a born conversationalist and hating awkward silences, I ventured a question.
“What did you guys do for Cinco De Mayo?” I asked.
“You know,” I said. “Independence Day?”
“Maybe, drink some tequila,” I said making a drinking motion hoping to enhance my verbal communication skills.
“We did nothing,” said the older of the cooks in perfect English looking at me bemused.
“Why would we?” he said shrugging his shoulders.
“It isn’t our independence day and we’re from Ixtapa, notPuebla.”
The fact of the matter is that Cinco de Mayo isn’tMexico’s independence day and it isn’t really even a national Mexican holiday. Until recently it was really only celebrated in the capital city ofPuebla, near the coast of the Caribbean in southwesternMexico. This was the site of the famous “Battle of Puebla” once declared a national holiday, although today it no longer carries that official title.
It all started when the French, Spanish and British landed troops in Mexico in the early 1860’s to collect debts incurred by the newly elected democratic government of President Benito Juarez. Soon enough the British and Spanish worked out financial terms and left. The French, under Emperor Napoleon III, decided to stick around. Their plan was to crown a Hapsburg prince, named Maximillian, emperor ofMexicoand depose theJuarezgovernment. Their timing couldn’t have been better. The fledglingUnited Stateswas embroiled in its own Civil War, and the Confederate States were in league with the French and were hoping to add an ally on their southern border.
The French army worked its way inland from theportofVera Cruzin order to capture the seat ofMexico’s government atMexico City. Along the way they passed though the town ofPuebla. The Mexican army, under the command of the Texas-born General Zaragosa engaged the French there on May 5, 1862, and in stunning fashion defeated them. This defeat temporarily stopped the French takeover ofMexicoand prevented the Confederates from gaining their much-needed southern ally. Eventually the French did manage to put Maximillian on the throne inMexicobriefly (bypassing the city ofPueblathis time) but by then the American Civil War had been decided. Once theUnited Stateshad wrapped up it own affairs they sent a large expeditionary force under General Phil Sheridan to help their southern democratic Americans. TheU.S.encouraged enlistment by allowing discharged Civil War veterans to keep their rifles and uniforms if they joined the Mexican Army. Maximillian was soon captured and then executed in 1867, putting an end to the Empire of Mexico. However the title is still extant in European royalty and the hereditary “Emperor of Mexico” is currently Maximiliano Gustav Richard Albrecht Agustin von Götzen-Iturbide, Imperial Prince ofMexico, Prince of Iturbide and Count of Götzen, who now lives inAustralia.
During the War with the French, President Juárez declared that the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla would be a national holiday, and thus Cinco de Mayo came into existence. Eventually it lost favor in most ofMexicoand soon was really only celebrated inPueblaand other small isolated areas.
100 years later American liquor marketers observing the enormous success of St Patrick’s Day celebrations (according to some current marketing St. Patty’s is now a season and not just a day) on the sales of Irish beer and whiskey decided that they too, needed a holiday to boost sales of their Mexican products. These marketers began to heavily promote Cinco de Mayo as a way to sell Mexican beer and tequila. The plan was a huge success, sales ofCoronabeer went through the roof and soon the sales of tequila followed. It wasn’t long before enterprising resort owners inMexiconoticed theU.S.trend and began marketing Cinco de Mayo trips to people back in theUnited States. Circuitously the once Mexican holiday-turned-U.S.-holiday is now celebrated in tourist-heavy areas throughoutMexico, including, of course, Ixtapa.
Ironically, if the French had managed to win the Battle of Puebla, instead of drinking tequila margaritas we might all be drinking something slightly different.
Jeff’s Franco-Confederate wishful-thinking Cinq de Mai Marguerite
1 and half ounces good southern whiskey (Kentuckybourbon orTennesseesour mash)
Half an ounce Mandarine Napoleon orange liqueur*
2 ounces good quality lemonade
Two lemon wedges slit in middle
Run lemon wedge around chilled cocktail glass’ edge, place sugar in shallow saucer and run glass rim through sugar until evenly coated. Shake gently to remove excess sugar. Combine whiskey and Mandarine Napoleon with lemonade and ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously and strain into sugar rimmed glass. Garnish with remaining lemon wedge. If from the South raise a glass to what almost was; if from the North toast your southern democratic brothers in arms; if from France whine a little; if from Mexico toast their actual independence day, which is September 16; and if you are a hereditary Hapsburg Emperor, complete your putt on the 17th green at the fabulous Australian hotel-golf complex near your home and raise your glass to the joys of patrilineal descent.
*This liqueur is actually made in Belgiumbut with a name like this how could I resist.